Good to Great: Lessons for Leaders

In his book Good to Great Jim Collins analyzes what enabled 11 companies, including Coca Cola, Gillette, Wells Fargo and GE, to transition from good to great. Among his findings were that to become great, companies need to develop a culture of personal discipline, avoid radical change and restructuring and, most interesting, have a “Level 5” leader at the top, a visionary who share his vision with an inner circle of team members and works with them to guide the company to new heights.

In this week’s parasha, Chukat, we have another opportunity to speculate on the type of leader that Moses was. In the first 13 verses of chapter 20, we read the familiar of Moses striking a rock to make it produce drinking water for his complaining people, an act for which he is punished by being condemned to die in the wilderness and being denied the privilege of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Long considered a bewildering fate for Israel’s great leader, this Torah story makes us wonder what did Moses could have done that was so wrong.

Many commentators spanning the generations offer their take on the story. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the “Ramban,” 1194-1270, Spain) suggests that Moses was punished for the sin of misleading his people into thinking it was he, and not God, who had the power to produce water. Relying on the verse that says “Shall we get water,” Ramban suggests that Moses mistakenly implies that he too has the power to work miracles. A responsible reading of the text does not permit that conclusion. But perhaps we can say that great leaders watch every word they say and are careful to avoid misimpressions.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain) suggests that the sin of Moses can be found in needing to be told to work a miracle, meaning that Moses may not have possessed the requisite faith to assure his people that God would provide for them. Could it be that Moses did not have faith in God? Great leaders trust their instincts; Jewish leaders ought to possess faith in God and/or in the People of Israel.

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, Germany) suggests that Moses was punished because he lost his temper. He needed to keep his cool and remain calm, the best pathway to staying in control and in charge of the situation. Great leaders don’t allow anger and temper to get the best of them.

Everett Fox (Bible scholar at Clark University, MA) suggests that the sin of Moses is that he embarrasses God in public by disobeying Him. Great leaders, says Fox, reserve criticism of their boss and employees for private moments.

My own take on the story is that Moses is not punished by God. Rather, God comes to the sad conclusion that it’s time for a change in leadership if the people are to make progress. Moses was the right leader for his time, a man able to understand and make use of miracles (the Ten Plagues, signs and wonders, manna and quail from heaven) for that was what he was accustomed to doing from his upbringing in Egypt. But God asked him to “speak” to the rock, not to strike it, and Moses couldn’t make the transition to a new way of being.

Our tradition credits Moses with being God’s greatest prophet and our people’s greatest leader. Perhaps that acclaim is sentimental, which is perfectly fine. Perhaps he was not a “Level 5” leader. Our task is simply to study his life and his leadership career, measure ourselves against him, and learn what we can about becoming the best we can be in whatever we do.

What Made What Hitler Did Wrong?

The kidnapping of three Israeli teens has rattled Jews in Israel and around the world, and has touched off a campaign to do whatever can and must be done to ensure they are returned to their families. In all corners of the Jewish world, people are gathering to express outrage and to pray for the safe return of Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar. Perhaps it is that victims of this horrendous abduction are just boys, students in a Yeshiva, and perhaps it is that Jews, and especially Israelis, cannot tolerate feeling vulnerable and at the mercy of those who seek our destruction, but it’s hard to find a supporter of Israel who doesn’t feel touched by this kidnapping.

Perhaps most upsetting in all of this is the fact that some Palestinians are openly celebrating the abduction. Stories and photos of people passing out candy and sweets, smiling broadly, are all over the internet. Many Palestinians, and other Arabs, have taken to holding out three fingers, with Arabic words written on each finger, as an expression of jubilation that three Israeli boys have been violently abducted and are being held, traumatized and quite possibly have been injured or worse. The most upsetting of these photos are the ones of children, some holding guns, others grinning, holding up three fingers in joyful approval of a violent crime. Overlook for the moment that leaders in the Palestinian community frantically spread the word to shopkeepers to erase any video footage from the cameras mounted on their shops and businesses to thwart Israel’s investigation. There is something unsettling, to say the least, about children endorsing violence with the apparent approval, if not encouragement, of their parents. One is compelled to ask how any society descends to such a level.

Israelis would never do such a thing. Violence and war are sometimes necessary, but they are always seen as evil and unwanted. In Israeli society, children are distanced and sheltered from the pain and trauma of war and conflict to the greatest extent possible. Israel is not a perfect place and its high moral standards, built on a foundation of democracy and freedom, are sometimes compromised. But when that happens, Israelis do not express jubilation. Those who commit crimes are prosecuted, not made into celebrities. When Israel must strike its enemies, there are no joyous demonstrations in the streets and people do not fire guns in the air in raucous celebration.

What accounts for the difference between two societies where one celebrates violence and one regrets it? Some would say that desperate people do desperate things, and that Palestinians are desperate. I don’t believe that. Jews have been desperate in the past, and we have never celebrated violence and hatred. And there are plenty of angry, violent terrorists in the world who commit unspeakable acts of violence not because they are desperate but because they believe what they’re doing is good and true and right.

Is there such a thing as a universal good? Are there certain things that are, uncompromisingly, evil and wrong? As a Jew, I certainly believe that there is such a thing as universal good, a moral code taught by God and communicated through the words of the Torah. I can’t accept the world as a place where one person’s terrorist is another’s “freedom fighter,” where the definition of evil is a matter of opinion. To put it in even starker terms, something made what Hitler did wrong. His actions, and those of other brutal oppressors and tyrannical leaders throughout history, are universally wrong.

I pray that the three Yeshiva boys kidnapped on a quiet evening by terrorists will be returned to their families and will be able to resume their lives. And I pray that the words of the ancient prophet Habakuk will be realized, that someday “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

As a Reminder…

Earlier this week I had a unique experience that I can’t stop thinking about—I took a “virtual dementia tour” given by a local caregiving agency. The purpose of the tour, held at the Charles Bierman Home in South Orange, was to raise awareness about people who live with dementia by simulating what it is like to live with dementia and other sensory impairment problems. After listening to a brief set of instructions read by the social worker who coordinated the experience, I was given inserts to put in my shoes that simulated what it would be like to live with neuropathy, two sets of gloves to simulate the absence of fine motor skill, headphones to simulate the kind of noise perception that makes it difficult to concentrate, and special goggles to simulate macular degeneration and other forms of vision impairment. As I walked down a hallway into a small bedroom, I could feel the unpleasant tingling on the soles of my feet caused by the inserts. The coordinator read some additional instructions to me, but the noise coming through the headphones made it nearly impossible to understand what was being said to me. I sat on the edge of the bed, feeling anxious because of the noise and inability to see clearly. The test coordinator spoke to me a couple of times, but I still could not comprehend what she was saying. At the end of the experience, I learned that I was being told to do five tasks, such simple things as folding a sweater and putting something on the dresser. But the gloves, goggles and headphones made it impossible to do any of those things. Could this be what it’s like to live with dementia? If so, what a terrible burden such a limitation must be for those who suffer with it.

We tend to overlook people with impairments such as dementia. We often react with impatience to people who are slow to respond to situations because of some limitation they face in life. We expect normal functioning from people, perhaps unaware that they suffer quietly from a condition that does not allow them to behave in ways that are considered normal. We may be capable of sensitivity and understanding, but we often do not display those characteristics.

What we need is a reminder that some people deserve special consideration. Ironically, the Jewish tradition includes such a daily reminder to treat others with understanding and empathy. At the end of this week’s parasha, Shelach Lecha, we find the familiar passage, imbedded in our daily prayers, that describes the practice of placing “tsitsit,” specially tied fringes, on the corners of our garments. Most Jews uphold this commandment by wearing a tallit during services, while some fulfill the mitzvah by wearing a special garment—called “Tallit Katan” (small tallit) or “Arba Kanfot” (four corners)—under their shirt. The fringes are tied in a special way to symbolize God’s commandments and are meant to remind us to follow the ways of the Torah. Think of tsitsit as a perpetual reminder to do the right thing. We are capable of behaving in ways that are moral and ethical, but we sometimes miss the mark. Tsitsit are a daily reminder to do the right thing for ordinary, good people who sometimes fail to do what is good not because they are cruel or unkind by nature, but because from time to time they need to be reminded of the right thing to do.

My experience of simulated dementia was a bit harrowing and unsettling, eye opening and illuminating. I learned a lot about how difficult life can be for people with severe limitations. We could all stand to be reminded to adjust our behavior to accommodate, both physically and emotionally, those who need extra support, understanding and consideration and, thankfully, one of the “fringe benefits” of Judaism is a daily means of doing so.

Same Old, Same Old

I have a confession to make: I am a serial “upgrader.” I usually try to get the latest Smartphone or computer laptop on the market. The reality is that I probably don’t need the latest device, or even the one with all the “bells and whistles” that I currently have, and I could easily make do using the same devices I own. But living a vibrant Jewish life calls for an ongoing, thoughtful and reflective assessment of how we practice our religion. Otherwise, we run the risk of seeing the daily rituals of Judaism as unappealing and even boring.

We encounter this idea within the Torah portion we’ll read this Shabbat—Beha’alotecha. In chapter 8, we read a straightforward verse: “Aaron did so…he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” The commentaries on the verse do not see the verse as so straightforward. A 19th century Polish rabbi, Meir of Premishlan, seemed to be taken aback by the statement in the Torah that Aaron did as God had commanded Moses. Aaron was the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, so why wouldn’t he, of all people, do as God had commanded? Rabbi Meir writes that the verse teaches us that Aaron, despite his ascension to the role of High Priest, remained the man he had been, involved with others, making peace between individuals, remaining true to who he was and fulfilling his daily responsibilities. Regardless of personal success and status, Aaron kept about his daily routine.

The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, 18th century Lithuania) had a different take on the verse. He wrote that the verse teaches that there was no difference between the way he performed the commandment to light the lamp the first time and the way he performed it thereafter for the following 39 years, day after day. The Vilna Gaon credits Aaron with equivalent enthusiasm for the same task and not letting it become a matter of rote to him.

Perhaps that was true for Aaron, but I wonder if it is for the rest of us. While continuity of tradition is an important facet of Jewish life, we also need to be open to new ideas and new ways of experiencing Judaism. Not only do we need to see that Judaism remains relevant in our eyes, helping us to respond to the realities and trends of the times in which we live, but our practice of Judaism needs to grow and change as well. This is true in the arenas of prayer, ritual, holiday celebration and education.

Jewish tradition is a gift to each of us seasoned and sanctioned by time and the experiences of generations who have come before us. But as we embrace our tradition and prepare to pass it on to those who come after us, we should be willing to allow it to grow and change in new and exciting ways. We too can light the lamps, but perhaps we’ll find new and more exciting ways to do so.