Friday, April 1, 2016

Don’t keep it simple or calm! On political and other leadership

The contrast between Donald Trump and our current prime minister could hardly be greater. The “Donald” fearlessly commits to punishing women for having abortions, ‘building a wall that Mexico will pay for’ and barring Muslims entry to the US. I cringed when I read Kristina Keneally’s sarcastic ridiculing of the caution of our Prime Minister in her article; “Let’s cut Turnbull some slack, he’s had a hard week after making a decision[i]”. Another comparison could be made between the complexity of Hilary Clinton’s candidacy and the simplicity of the Sanders economic message. The attraction of the simple is undeniable. Despite my strong feelings about the leaders more generally, this post is focused on the merit of different leadership styles rather than on the personalities. 

 I was told the other day to calm down while talking passionately about my ideas. I thought: ‘No way will I calm down’. Sitting alongside emotion’s potential for destruction and messiness, is its potency as an ingredient of positive change. I love watching Bernie Sanders getting carried away in delight, as when a bird settled on his podium, or in anger when talking about injustice. On the other hand, emotion coupled with arrogance can be truly scary in a leader.

I also choose to embrace, albeit reluctantly, my hesitancy and difficulty making decisions. While it might be considered heroic or “manly” to be decisive, it can also lead to harmful decisions.

In this week’s Torah reading, we find a caution against getting carried away with emotion in the case of Aaron’s sons who spontaneously and joyously[ii] brought an offering that they were not commanded to bring[iii]. Passion is vital, as symbolised by the constant fire in the temple [iv], but it must be combined with humility[v]. Humility is also highlighted in commentary about Aaron being told by Moses to step forward to leadership[vi]. It is suggested that Aaron was reluctant about leadership, worried about a past failure. However he was told “it is for/because of this that you were chosen[vii]”. This quality of humility and reluctance to lead is itself the virtue that makes Aaron deserving of leadership[viii].  Sanders seems to have a combination of humility and passion which I am drawn to.   

I also have been thinking about the qualities attributed to honey and salt in our traditions. Honey is seen as highly potent and not at all complex: it simply adds to the flavour of foods. Salt is complicated. If you put a lot of salt on a plant, it will destroy it; however, put salt on other foods and it preserves them. So salt is complicated in that it’s  both preserving and destructive. Of the two elements, it is salt that is required in the temple and honey that is generally banned. That might be of some comfort to Clinton or Kasich supporters if complexity was the only thing that mattered.  Humility and passion, coupled with an embrace of complexity and caution, are some of the needed qualities for leadership. As Ed Kotch said when he was running for Mayor of New York, “there are many people better qualified than me to be mayor. None of them are running this year”.  I pray that whoever leads both the US and Australia be blessed with the required qualities to do so.   

[i] The Guardian
[ii] Torat Cohanim, in Torah Shlaima p3, 1
[iii] Leviticus 10:1
[iv] Schneerson, Rabbi Y. Y. in Hayom Yom,  21 Adar II
[v] Talmud, Eruvin 63a, Yoma 53a, and Torah Cohanim
[vi] Leviticus 9:7
[vii] Torah Cohanim cited in Rashi

[viii] Baal Shem Tov in Degel Machne Efrayim, in Greenberg, A.Y. (1992) Torah Gems, Orenstien, Tel Aviv p.266

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