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

Trusting our leaders

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The closer we get to another round in the seemingly never-ending American election cycle, the more we begin to hear stepped up discussions about trust (or the lack of same) in our political leadership. Sadly, distrust in our elected officials is commonplace. But it is not just our politicians. A preponderance of high profile scandals has resulted in a dramatic loss of trust in our corporate heads and even in our religious leaders as well.

From the perspective of classical Jewish value teachings, nothing could be more untenable. The Talmud (Bava Batra 8b) makes it clear that no one can be appointed a communal leader unless he or she is completely trustworthy. Individuals "were not to exercise authority over the community, but that they were to be trusted." 

Where does trust come from? What are the factors that make for a trusting relationship between followers and leaders? What do you look for when it comes to trusting your own leaders - bosses, politicians, team captains, rabbis? Not surprisingly, many of the attributes we cherish in our own interpersonal relationships are the same traits we value in relationships with our leaders - honesty, reliability, constancy, and fairness, among others. 

An analysis of Jewish texts on the subject makes it clear that in our tradition trust is the aggregate sum of a delicate combination of both competence and character. Whereas the general leadership literature is fond of distinguishing between leadership skills, those technical competencies a leader requires, and leadership attributes, those personal characteristics often thought to constitute the essence of good leadership, no such bifurcation exists in Judaism. In a formula made popular by Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 18:21), "You shall … seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God…," effective leadership requires both competence and character. Only when both conditions obtain will followers trust their leaders. "It is not enough, taught Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at USC, "for a leader to do things right; he must do the right thing."

While proficiencies, even those that can be globalized, may vary from position to position - and by the way, it is often a mistake to assume that competency in one area will necessarily translate into another arena - there are certain commonalities associated with character and integrity in leadership that are timeless. They are not unique to a particular leadership paradigm, and are, therefore, worthy of consideration by any who aspire to lead.   

Of all of these, Judaism is particularly concerned with the connection between fiscal propriety and effective leadership. Traditional authorities, recognizing the opportunities and temptations often associated with high office, were especially vigilant about avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. Fastidiousness of the highest order was expected of communal leaders, even if their jobs went far beyond accounting and finance. The kohanim - Temple priests - for example, were proscribed from wearing certain bordered cloaks that could be used to illegally sequester coins, not because the priest were thought to be common criminals, but because their ability to lead required them to be above suspicion completely (Mishnah Shekalim 3:2). So too, the king was forbidden from sitting on the High Court (Sanhedrin) lest he be placed in the position of adjudicating certain issues that might benefit his personal finances (Sanhedrin 18b). 

The medieval legalist, Moses Maimonides, set the bar particularly high for those involved in communal fundraising. 

One should not contribute to a charity fund unless he knows that the one in charge of the collections is trustworthy and intelligent and knows how to manage properly, as in the case of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon [who administered the communal charity funds so scrupulously that once when money of his own chanced to get mixed with the charity funds, he distributed the whole amount among the poor](Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matanot Ani'im 9-10).

For Maimonides, involvement in the philanthropic sector, either as a professional or volunteer, demands impeccable fiscal ethics. Only when a community trusts its fundraisers, organizational executives, and lay leaders can it be expected to give generously.  We can extrapolate from Maimonides' teaching to the realm of business and politics as well. Investors and the general electorate need to know that those who seek their support - fiscal or otherwise - come not only with the necessary competencies to lead, but with the highest moral standards as well. Character is established not merely by mouthing the right words about financial accountability, but by a level of personal conduct, evinced in the actions of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon that reflects a commitment to the highest level of integrity above all else. 

Consider how different things might be if these were standards used to assess our contemporary leaders.


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