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Why Do Leaders Fail?

In his commentary on this week’s Bible portion, Rabbi Sacks talks about failures in leadership. Let’s review some of his teachings and see to what extent they ring true.

Two types of failure

Leaders can fail for two kinds of reason. The first is external. The time may not be right. The conditions may be unfavourable. There may be no one on the other side to talk to.

Nonetheless, here is a question: isn’t it the leader’s job to make things happen that turn circumstances in his favor?

The second kind of failure is internal. A leader can simply lack the courage to lead. Sometimes leaders have to oppose the crowd. They have to say No when everyone else is crying Yes. That can be terrifying.

How true. How many times have you seen a leader – a teacher, a school administrator, a clergyman, a politician – get soft and do the popular thing as opposed to the right thing?

Following is not leading

There is an apocryphal quote attributed to several politicians: “Of course I follow the party. After all, I am their leader.” There are leaders who follow instead of leading. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter compared them to a dog taken by its master for a walk. The dog runs on ahead, but keeps turning around to see whether it is going in the direction the master wants it to go. The dog may think it is leading but actually it is following.

The current administration claims that it is leading by following. Exactly whom are they following?

Passing the buck

Aaron blamed the people. It was they who made the illegitimate request. He denied responsibility for making the calf. It just happened. “I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” This is the same kind of denial of responsibility we recall from the story of Adam and Eve. The man says, “It was the woman.” The woman says, “It was the serpent.” It happened. It wasn’t me. I was the victim not the perpetrator. In anyone such evasion is a moral failure; in a leader, all the more so.

Apparently, supposed leaders have been blaming the other guy since Biblical times. Do you think that someone who perceives himself as a victim could possibly be a good leader?

The right leader for the right time

Tradition dealt kindly with Aaron. He is portrayed as a man of peace. Perhaps that is why he was made High Priest. There is more than one kind of leadership, and priesthood involves following rules, not taking stands and swaying crowds. The fact that Aaron was not a leader in the same mould as Moses does not mean that he was a failure. It means that he was made for a different kind of role.

What kind of leader do you believe our country needs right now?