For the Sin of Poor Leadership
Dr. Erica Brown is a faculty member of The Wexner Foundation. She is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is the author of several books, her latest being Confronting Scandal. Erica is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My first class with the Wexner Heritage Baltimore group this year met a few days before Yom Kippur. We studied text and discussed the syllabus, but after dinner I couldn’t resist the need to teach to the season. I engaged the group in a leadership exercise. Each person was asked to write 3 “Al Cheit’s” of leadership. The Al Cheit or “sin list” that we find in most High Holiday prayerbooks is meaningful but doesn’t always touch us where we live, so to speak. Imagine for a moment that we each wrote our own lists: for the wrongs of our parenting, of our professional lives, in our roles as partner, spouse, friend. After all, getting personal and specific is what repentance is all about.
The exercise was fascinating and rewarding, and I have included the gifts of articulation that were given to me that evening on my website:www.leadingwithmeaning.com. Please send me yours to email@example.com and take a few minutes to reflect on your personal leadership struggles.
Here are a few gems:
• For the sin of seeking acknowledgement.
• For the sin of marginalizing someone for their contrary opinion.
• For the sin of not effectively delegating responsibility.
• For the sin of simply accepting "good enough."
What prompted me to ask this of a group of Jewish leaders? For the past year and a half, I have been researching and writing a book, Confronting Scandal, on how our community responds to scandal, abuses of power and hypocrisy. Now it’s finally out. In the process of writing, I began to notice the “public apology.” Day after day newspapers spew apologies of failed hedge fund managers or celebrities caught with drugs (again) or politicians found in immoral trysts.
These leaders in their fields abused power and felt themselves entitled to live above the law. They make their own rules and then grovel their way out of problems. Where is the outrage? Where is the modern day prophet?
Who are these apologies designed to appease, and why are they articulated in the first place? Do they work? Do they reflect true accountability and sincerity? I’ll let you answer these questions.
Most leaders begin their trajectory of influence with a strong desire to impact the world for good. But something happens on the route to power that can change everything. It’s hard to believe that a young, talented Attorney General ever thought he’d end his career in a hotel bedroom in the nation’s capital. It is even harder to believe that a rabbi who set out on his very first pulpit adventure would end his rabbinate because of sexual abuse or money laundering. What goes wrong?
As leaders garner more power, they often surround themselves with “yes men”; individuals who praise them, look up to them and don’t challenge them. If you look carefully at the David and Bathsheba story in the Hebrew Bible, you notice that the narrative is filled with messengers and military commanders who knew exactly or partially what David was doing and enabled him to engage in an adulterous affair, to kill a man to get out of a paternity problem and to murder other soldiers to make the crime look real.
Daniel Goleman, one of the pioneers of emotional intelligence studies co-authored a book called Primal Leadership. In it, he contends that the more senior a person becomes professionally, the less feedback he or she receives. We are afraid to criticize a boss or a supervisor lest we lose a job or a friend or a relationship. But every time we let bad behaviors slip, we are implicitly validating and giving permission for someone to betray his or her best self.
We have a commandment in Leviticus to rebuke our friends and colleagues when they have lost their way. Maimonides tells us in his master work of law, the Mishneh Torah, (Laws of Character 6:7) that we must take this commandment seriously: “Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners].” According to Maimonides, we need to help a person who errs morally or spiritually by speaking to him privately and repeatedly and by emphasizing that we care about his own good and future. He may not listen, but we have exculpated ourselves from bearing the weight of their crime. We said what needed to be said.
Leaders take responsibility for wrongdoing. They also surround themselves with people who aren’t afraid to remind them of their own core principles and what they stand for, especially when their ideology becomes compromised. Our friends and communities are an insurance policy of goodness for us. We have to leverage the moral resource we have in each other by seeking out counsel, finding peer mentors, articulating and confessing wrongdoing and being accountable when we fall short.