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The Price of Leadership
My Point of View--Jan 19, 2004
© Rabbi Jack Moline

A relatively regular topic of conversation these days is not new – the quality of political leadership. Whether speaking of local, state or national representation, Democrats and Republicans alike bemoan the troubles they have finding candidates for office. Even mounting a challenge to incumbents with demonstrably terrible records has become problematic. Qualifications for office seem to be deep pockets and an attractive media presence. Values and issues are secondary to “can she raise the money?” and “does he seem like a nice guy?”

But even the potential candidates with dollars and grins are reluctant to enter public service because of personal scrutiny. A person in the public eye is expected to tolerate a level of investigation that is excessive and generally unforgiving. Jewish tradition holds that the world is supported by just thirty-six wholly righteous individuals. There are 435 seats in Congress alone!

Public servants are human beings and ought to be expected to strike the balance between personal integrity and professional effectiveness. A philanderer or substance abuser can still be an effective leader; it is reasonable to ask when judgment is impaired by or power is appropriated for personal shortcomings. But our lack of public civility in the name of the First Amendment has had a chilling effect on a generation of potential leaders who cannot meet a standard to which their investigators and accusers do not even aspire.

Unfortunately, the model spills over into smaller arenas as well. Lately, I have been speaking with people who hold positions of responsibility in our synagogue community. I am distressed to discover the level of personal recrimination that has been leveled against them, or against others in similar positions. One of our officers told me of twenty-five e-mails received in a single day, each one containing some sort of allegation of personal misconduct. (The most usual seems to be “secret decisions;” I can count on less than one finger the number of non-board members who came to expose the secrecy of the board at its last meeting.)

Is it no wonder that our members – YOU – roll your eyes and shake your heads when approached about synagogue leadership? Are we to be surprised when our reluctant leaders disappear, not just from the board, but also from the sanctuary, when their terms end?

Believe me, I know what they complain about. False accusations and irrelevant personal insults come along with any public position, including my own. Sifting the legitimate criticism from the gratuitous nastiness is a wearing and confusing task that dampens the genuine joy that comes with service to Jews and the Jewish community. At least I receive a paycheck for my troubles.

But it is time to examine the way we treat those who would bear and share the burden of leadership. Make no statement, post no e-mail, send no letter that you yourself would take offense at receiving. Participate in no threats, no bullying, no attempts at intimidation that would raise your own blood pressure. And if others do so, decline the invitation to play along. As Shammai said, “Greet every person pleasantly.”

As for those of you on the receiving end, the advice of Joshua ben Perachya may help you see past the pain: Judge every person’s intentions favorably.

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