The Leading Edge

Hal Lewis

Jewish leadership expert Dr. Hal M. Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute, on Judaism, leaders, and leadership.

The Leading Edge

Learning leadership at Wimbledon

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Within moments of his 2013 Wimbledon victory, making him the first British man to win that fabled competition in 77 years, Andy Murray gave a media interview that seemed almost as grueling as the match itself. When asked what had changed in the time since his heart-wrenching and emotional defeat on that same court the year before, Murray responded without hesitation. Out of breath and clearly exhausted, the new champion answered by saying that over the past twelve months he had: a) learned from his mistakes, b) worked extremely hard, and c) surrounded himself by a top-notch team.

I suspect that the very last thing on Andy Murray’s mind that July day was teaching the world about effective leadership, but that is exactly what he did. His tripartite prescription: learn from your mistakes, work hard, and surround yourself with a first-rate team is, in fact, a formula for all who strive to be successful leaders.

Learn From Your Mistakes

The best leaders are thoughtful leaders; they understand the benefit of quiet reflection as part of their work. The essential Jewish teaching of teshuva (repentance) suggests that each of us has the capacity for heshbon hanefesh (self-evaluation) and can learn from our errors. Judaism has never insisted that we are imprisoned by our past actions. Rather, our sources suggest that if we acknowledge our mistakes, we can move beyond them. Individuals who are too quick to overlook their failures, insisting that they are anomalous and have nothing of value to teach, or those who seek to blame others for their shortcomings, are incapable of effective leadership. Absent a willingness to deal head on with yesterday’s mistakes, to learn from them, and to improve, one cannot expect a different tomorrow.

Work Hard

The Talmud (Megillah 6b) says it best: “If a man says to you, I have labored and not found, do not believe him. If he says I have not labored but still have found, do not believe him. Only if he says, I have labored and I have found may you believe him.” What Andy Murray knew, and what effective leaders understand, is that there is no substitute for hard work. The privilege that often comes with power can be alluring. But no leader can succeed by sitting back and coasting or by phoning it in. No one is that good to be able to get by on natural talent or past performance alone. Leadership is difficult and painstaking. Defeat and setback come with the territory. No experienced leader hopes for instant results. Patience, tenacity and steadfastness are the necessary ingredients. Success will come but there are no magic bullets or quick fixes.

Surround Yourself with A Great Team

As Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy make clear in their work Execution, great leaders get things done through other people. The very idea of a stand-alone leader, without followers, is an absurdity. In the twenty first century, no single individual, however talented or brilliant, can know enough or do enough to succeed solo. Murray, on what was arguably ‘his’ day, was quick to acknowledge what the best leaders have always known: his success was not his alone. In the wonderful book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that even the most accomplished individuals are the products of elaborate nexuses:

“… In order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them—at their culture and community and family and generation. We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looking at the forest.”

In a Midrash (Tanhuma, Beshalach), God reminds the greatest Jewish leader, Moses, of the same thing. His success as a leader, God tells Moses, can only be explained in the context of his team – the Israelites who left Egypt. ”… In their merit I have elevated you, and because of them you will find … honor before Me.”  

It is unlikely that any of us will play tennis like Andy Murray. But we who aspire to lead have much to learn from that 26-year-old Scotsman who in the aftermath of the biggest victory of his life offered a simple yet eloquent paean to the value of learning from our mistakes, working hard, and surrounding ourselves by a great team.