Jack Dorsey became Twitter’s first CEO, after working as lead engineer during the product’s early development stages. But as Twitter grew in popularity, the business required a leader who could put in place a repeatable set of standards and procedures. It needed someone who could champion a formal structure and build it into the DNA of the company, and it needed someone to streamline the company’s operating model, in order meet the needs of a fast scaling workforce. Ultimately Twitter’s investors decided he was no longer the right person for the role.
One of the most important decisions that a business leader makes, pertains to their own place within a company. This can prove to be one of the toughest decisions of their career. Sometimes the start-up leader of a fast growing company fails to grow with the company, and the visionary who made the company what it is today is not necessarily best placed or suited to take it forward. Different executives may be required at different stages of a business’s maturity.
They may undergo a crisis of identity, like a teacher who realises that his or her pupil has surpassed them, and begins to confront themselves with new questions – what is my role vis-à-vis this new being, who was once reliant on me? The pain of separation sets in, and demands a new relationship under a new set of circumstances. This is the bittersweet result of victory. Success means failure and can be the most difficult message for a leader to hear. In the place where they once reigned supreme, they must accept defeat, so successful that they are no longer relevant. Ultimately, this represents the price of creating an autonomous being; one that is self-governing and operates self-sufficiently, because it has been cultivated to do so.
What is the appropriate response to this? How is one to respond and navigate this challenge, which we all undergo during our lives, albeit in different forms? A talmudic debate illuminates this theme, and presents a most breathtaking response. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) records a well-known incident known as tanur shel achnai (an earthenware oven whose separate parts were reassembled using a concrete-like sand compound). R Eliezer refuses to concede his opinion to the other sages, to the point where he invokes a heavenly voice to demonstrate that halachah (Jewish law) conforms with his opinion:
It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘After the majority must one incline’.
This is an oft quoted passage and following it, we are presented with a most remarkable demonstration of humility:
R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’
Here we encounter an unbelievable response which demands inspection. The Master of the universe has shown what leadership in defeat really means, where the most authentic and ambitious goal of leadership is laid bare in all its awesomeness and majesty. Here we see the true price of leadership. Ultimately the greatest sacrifice a leader must make is personal ambition.
And yet, the Talmud continues and we are presented with a second response:
It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him. Said they, ‘Who shall go and inform him?’ ‘I will go,’ answered R. Akiba, ‘lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.’ What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from him. ‘Akiba,’ said R. Eliezer to him, ‘what has particularly happened to-day?’ ‘Master,’ he replied, ‘it appears to me that thy companions hold aloof from thee.’ Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes.
R. Eliezer was the greatest sage of his generation, and those who ruled against him were his students, including R. Akiva, R. Yehoshua, and Rabban Gamliel. The mortal sovereign, ultimately, must vacate his temporary throne, usurped by the forces he gathered around him. In this instance, the very autonomy of R. Eliezer’s design was under threat, by its creator. And, acting in the interests of that design, and indirectly in R. Eliezer’s interests, his students shunned him.
There are then two reactions to a leader’s realisation of their limitations. One is to feel the pain of disappointment in one’s own frailties; the other is to take pleasure in the success of others. This choice is the price of success.
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