Churchill, in his inimitable style, put it so wisely and succinctly: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
As a great, albeit flawed, leader, Winston Churchill knew better than most that the road to success and leadership is filled with treacherous potholes, dangerous obstacles and cunning crevices. This is no more evident than in current politics and the politics of our current parasha (Torah reading).
Over the last months, and in particular this past month, we’ve witnessed serious challenges to the leadership of PM Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron. Theresa May’s performance in the feisty debates of the British Parliament over Brexit, reflect not only the precariousness of her position, but also the astonishing resilience and fortitude of this woman. While her critics are many, she has maintained her dignity, humour and doggedness. Notwithstanding the questions about her leadership, she surely cannot be faulted for her passion, energy and enthusiasm. Macron, by contrast seemed shocked and chastened by his failure to anticipate and quell the popular protests against his position.
Beyond the particularities of May and Macron is the wider question of leadership today. There’s wide-spread dissatisfaction with our political leaders from Australia to America, Europe to Venezuela. We’re disillusioned by their narrowness, corruption, lack of vision and integrity. Our liberal democracies are under sustained attack from within and without. Putin and Xi Jinping, your typically autocratic leaders proudly suggest that theirs is the best way to achieve comfort and security. Populist leaders like Trump exploit the frustration of their followers.
Our parasha and indeed the Book of Genesis present different styles of leadership as well as reflecting on the very nature of leadership. Joseph was a brilliant administrator, he knew it was “all about the economy” and implemented strategies to ensure economic prosperity and stability. Second only to Pharaoh, he is a leader of vision and pragmatism. His brother Judah is a different kind of leader. He is eloquent as manifested in his masterful speech which is the foundation for (and provides the name of) the parasha. He is courageous: he takes on the formidable Joseph, viceroy of Egypt. He is self-aware and responsible. He recognises his failures, he learns from his mistakes; he is a man of integrity. He acknowledges his part in the betrayal of Joseph (as he did in the judgement of Tamar). He is the quintessential penitent.
It is therefore not surprising that Judah becomes the ancestor of kings and the namesake of the Jewish people: We are known as Yehudim, יהודים because we are the descendants of Yehudah or Judah. The name Judah is derived from the Hebrew words “to thank” and “to confess” or to own your own wrongdoings.
In Ronald Heifetz’s distinction, leadership is distinguished from authority by its emphasis on influence rather than power; authority is about the position you hold, leadership is about the effect or impact you achieve. Many, if not most, of our great Jewish leaders are better known for their influence.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, himself an inspiring leader of our times, proposes seven principles of Jewish leadership:
Leadership is service – giving to those around you
Leadership begins by taking responsibility
Leadership is vision driven
The highest form of leadership is teaching
A leader must have faith in the people he or she leads
Leaders need a sense of timing and pace
We are all summoned to the task of leadership
These are thoughtful and stimulating principles and provide a neat framework to assess not only our Jewish leaders but all our current leaders. They’re also a call to each of us to be leaders in our own right to make our best contribution in whatever way possible. Finally, they’re a challenge to give our leaders credit and the space to lead; to remember that good leadership is also a reflection of good ‘follower-ship’.
We are quick to judge our leaders for their failures, we should also be swift to honour them for their achievements and to praise them when they recognise their wrongs, stumble and stand again. David Brooks and Jonathan Sacks get it just right when they say we are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling. We will never reach the stars but we can still be guided by them!