At the height of the absurdist antics surrounding Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's descent into infamy, a reporter inquired as to whether he considered his behavior appropriate for the mayor of a major North American city. Tellingly Ford responded, "I don't look at myself as the mayor. I look at myself as a normal, regular person." Reasonable people can certainly disagree as to whether Ford's activities meet the standard of a "normal regular" person, but something much more significant lies beneath this attempted defense of the mayor's actions.
To Ford being the leader of his city imposed upon him no particular obligations or behavioral standards. The idea, resonant in Jewish sources, that a leader is a dugma, a role model, was apparently anathema to him. One can certainly understand why. Even relative paragons of ethical virtue often resent the unwelcome scrutiny that accompanies leadership. Being a leader already involves a great deal of stress and responsibility. Superimposing an expectation of moral virtue seems unfair and onerous.
Yet without apology, in Judaism, leadership brings with it an expectation of heightened scrutiny and the expectation of an exemplary ethical standard. However unfairly, communal leaders must understand that their actions are placed under a microscope, precisely because they are leaders. The story is told of Aryeh Leib Sarahs (1730-1791), a hasid (disciple) of the great master, the Maggid of Mezhirech. Said Aryeh Leib famously, "I did not go to the maggid to learn Torah from him, but to watch him tie his boot laces." In other words, justly or not, followers analyze even the most mundane and seemingly innocuous acts of a leader in order to extrapolate every possible nuance and lesson.
Burdensome as it surely is, to be a leader is to stand naked and vulnerable before one's followers, a lesson the Toronto mayor never seemed to learn. The fact that leaders are held to a higher ethical standard than Rob Ford's "normal regular" persons may seem unreasonable, but savvy leaders never forget they are always being observed. "Your employees are talking about you at the dinner table, listening to what you say, measuring how closely your words square with your deeds," cautioned Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz in their 2011 book, The Invisible Spotlight.
When you are a leader others pay careful attention to even your smallest actions. This lesson was driven home to Anne Mulcahy when she became CEO of Xerox. Reflecting on her experiences in a 2010 interview with the Harvard Business Review, Mulcahy noted, "Everybody is looking at you. You can destroy someone by showing your emotions, particularly negative ones … If you come into the office looking like you're having a very bad day, everyone reacts to your mood. As chief executive, you have to consciously set the right tone … CEOs have to manage those unintended displays, because of how much impact they have on other people."
Mulcahy understood what so many great leaders have come to know. Notwithstanding Mayor Ford's assertion to the contrary, leaders can never be "normal regular" people. By virtue of being leaders they carry additional responsibilities in all that they do. This message is powerfully illuminated in Moses Maimonides' commentary on one of the Torah's most controversial episodes. The Book of Numbers (27:12-18) describes God's harsh decision to deny Moses entry into the Land of Israel. The text explains that this stems from an earlier episode in which Moses lost his temper in frustration and failed to follow divine instructions to the letter. It is difficult to read this account without feeling that Moses was punished unjustly. However mistaken his actions might have been, the severity of his fate seems excessive.
Yet, in his explication of the incident, Maimonides argues that, "God was strict with him … because they [the people] all modeled their actions upon his and studied his every word … Everything Moses said and did was scrutinized by them" (Shemoneh Perakim). Whether one finds Maimonides' explanation satisfying or not, he understood something essential about effective leadership: no leader can expect to be just a regular person. This is true whether one is the mayor of a major city or the president of a synagogue, a communal professional or a corporate executive. If the expectation of excellence and the attendant scrutiny that accompanies leadership is unwelcome, one should give serious consideration to another endeavor.