Leaderless

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People love taking credit for creating revolutions, but are not always fast to own up to long-term solutions, as we learn from Proverbs 28:2:

“When there is rebellion in the land, many are its rulers. But with a man who has understanding, many are its rulers.”

Every day we open the newspapers to new incidents of violence, particularly in the Middle East, as we move from one country to another whose leaders have either been deposed, killed or are holding such a tight reign of terror that it is only a matter of time before all anarchy breaks loose. It seems that the “Arab Spring” is drying up and leaving in its place untold sorrow. Syria has become a humanitarian nightmare. We will only truly understand the damage done by this regime long after the tyranny is over. Sanctions have not yet been successful. Instead, the world watches as innocent civilians are butchered. We stand by waiting for more bad news.

Tyranny often promotes anarchy when restlessness reaches a tipping point. Anarchy has always been a problem in the Hebrew Bible, as it is in politics generally. If Genesis 1 is a portrait of a world of order and intention and mandates that we act as creators in the same fashion, then the horrors of anarchy become particularly damaging to the Jewish world order. The book of Judges ends with a warning that comes after a civil war: “Each man did in his own eyes what was right because there was no king in Israel.” Without the stability of a single ruler, every person did not lead for himself but relinquished all leadership in favor of personal gain.

In Bad Leadership, Barbara Kellerman writes that we choose inept leaders over no leaders because of our need for simplicity and stability: “Leaders, even bad ones, can provide a sense of order and certainty in a disordered and uncertain world. Moreover, to resist leaders is to invite confusion and upset.” But when bad leaders get really, really bad then they generate more chaos than they create.

Much of the same chapter of Proverbs, where we learn that rebellions have many rulers, shares admonitions about leadership and overconfidence. Arrogance produces people who see themselves as talented, thoughtful and blameless while they are being abusive, exploitative and thick-skinned. “A rich man is clever in his own eyes” (28:11), but being unable to see himself accurately, he does not improve himself, thus paving a way to an unfortunate end: “He who covers up his faults will not succeed” (28:13).

In an odd turn, this chapter in Proverbs offers a counterintuitive portrait of happiness, one that minimizes the arrogance that can quickly turn into tyranny: “Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.” The best way to protect against anarchy is anxiety, the capacity to be appropriately worried about how one is doing in the world.

When leaders harden themselves to the needs of others then the death of the innocent becomes inconsequential to them. Legend has it that a leader once complained to his mentor that he was so anxious about his mistakes that he feared he could never lead well as a result. The mentor turned to him with a raised eyebrow and replied, “And what would be better, my friend, to have a leader who did not have this worry?”

Leaders always have to worry about how they are doing. If they are not worried, they are probably not leading.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on July 1, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.