We are approaching summer. Anyone remember last summer, the Jewish summer of scandal in New York? The heat returns, but we hope this time that light comes with it. We hope that these will be good months ahead, months where those in power feel the immense weight of personal responsibility weighing on their shoulders.
It is also the time when presidents and new board members are installed. Many Jewish nonprofits will change leadership over the summer. Many will hold leadership retreats so that people in new positions of power will know what to expect, even if you can never really know what to expect. Now is a good time to take the Jewish leadership IQ test: the Integrity Quotient.
Judaism has always coupled power with responsibility, even when there is a large price to pay. The Talmud says, “Authority buries the one who owns it.” Some commentaries suggest that this is to be taken literally. People with power have shorter lives, they claim. Others read it as a quality of life issue. You will take on the problems of others and the burden of fixing them. If you are the head of an organization or the president of a board, pay attention to this health warning. It should say on the side of your organization’s letterhead: “This leadership position could and will be hazardous to your life.”
What our health warning also needs to say is that not taking on leadership may be hazardous to the lives of others. We need good leadership. We need visionaries who can chart a course for us, and great managers who can get us there operationally because without them we’re lost.
The problem is how to train leaders to use authority wisely and remain humble when given power. We’ve all been in boardrooms where there is just not enough space to match the size of the egos. We might have to purchase larger chairs or buy extra oxygen because some people need to take up all the air in the room with their self-importance.
And here we turn to the Talmud again: “He was naked when he entered [into power], and he will be naked when he leaves it. If only his exit would be like his entrance — without sin and iniquity.” Few people enter the world with any power. Not even kings are born wearing ermine capes. And when they exit this world and their position of power, they will once again be naked, but this time sin and iniquity will have to be removed. Why? Because power changes people.
Because power changes people, those with power have to tame their egos. When one Talmudic sage went from his home to the court to judge a legal case, he would say to himself: “Of his own will, he goes to die.” I know that this is a difficult job and that I imperil my life when I do it. I am here to serve.
Another sage did the same thing, but when a crowd of people followed him, he added a few verses to his self-whispers: “Though his excellency ascends to the heavens, and his head reaches the clouds, yet he shall perish forever like his own dung; they who have seen him will say: where is he?” (Job 20:6-7). I may have my head in the clouds, but I am really like the basest of human waste. I am dung.
Rabbi Zutra was carried on the shoulders of his admirers on the Sabbath and holidays. He, too, would recite something to keep himself aware of authority’s perils. “For power is not forever, and does the crown endure for all generations?” (Proverbs 27:24). Power is temporal and short-lived. I wear the crown now. The crown will soon be removed.
Each of these sages was highly conscious of how authority changes leaders. Each identified a saying to keep his ego in check.
If you are about to lead, please find a quiet hour this summer — before the bustle of the year begins — to identify a quote that keeps you small, that reminds you to serve with decency and humility. Type it out on a piece of paper. Tuck it into your wallet. When you feel your ego swelling, whisper it to yourself, the way that our ancient sages whispered to themselves. Ask your board or staff to bring a quote to a leadership retreat. Think of FDR: “I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.”
We live in an ancient, modern, majestic house called the Jewish people. If you lead in this house, you have been given our trust. Cherish it, please, and make yourself worthy of it.
Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at Ericabrown.com.