Friday, April 21, 2017

Blame the followers? On Leadership- Shemini

I lay awake at 4:30 am the other day. Not for very long, but still unusual for me to be awake worrying about work. I tend to do my worrying during the day.

Fear of failure is a natural part of leadership. However, I wonder to what extent a leader needs to feel responsible for outcomes that are ultimately dependent on the choices of many people, whether active supporters or disinterested “followers”? Perhaps leadership is overrated. Some leaders appear successful, when in fact they are merely taking people where they want to go anyway.  Should the primary potency and responsibility be recognised as being with the followers instead? Perhaps this idea is a form of shirking of my responsibilities as a leader disguised as modesty. On the other hand, I know that my mental and emotional strength as a leader is enhanced by the generous appreciative  engagement of my “followers”, either as participants in my work or at my Torah discussions.   

In the Torah reading this week we read how Aaron was encouraged to approach the altar when he was bashful and fearful about performing sacrifices on the altar (1). Aaron imagined the altar resembling an ox and this reminded him about his past failure when he built an altar for a false god, the golden calf (2). Aaron carried the burden of that failure for the rest of his life. Yet the main stimulus for him being involved with the golden calf was the loss of faith by the people, which all but forced his hand.

The wording of the phrase in which Aaron was invited to approach the altar relates to the question of the impact of followers on their leaders. “Moses said to Aaron, a) "Approach the altar and perform your sin offering…and atone for yourself and [atone] for the people, and b) perform the people's sacrifice, and atone for them (3). This appears quite repetitive, Aaron is told twice to atone for the people. However, the atonement for the people actually involves two different elements. Aaron’s offering of a calf as a personal sin offering for himself is also partially an atonement for the people (4). Aaron’s sin is not only his own. This idea is also found in the way the offering of the anointed priest’s offering is described as well. “If the anointed priest sins, to the guilt of the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed, an unblemished young bull as a sin offering to the Lord” (5).

A sheikh I know reflected that we spend a lot of time giving leadership courses, perhaps we would be better off teaching people how to be followers. To all who have supported me in my work or teaching, thank you for helping me be as strong, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as I am. Thank you to the Australian supporter who sent me text messages about helping me from a hotel room in New York yesterday, at 7:00 am his time, while on holiday with his family. Thank you to the people who attend my Torah discussion group on a Saturday afternoon, who offer their thoughts, reflections and questions. Thank you dear reader for spending your precious time reading my thoughts. The success of leaders belongs to their followers as well as to the them. And when they fail, the buck stops with them... and perhaps a little bit with their followers too.


  1. Torat Cohanim, in Torah Shlaima, p. 154.
  2. Raavad cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 154.
  3. Leviticus 9:7.
  4. Abarbanel, Vayikra, p.108 (Chorev edition). Abarbanel’s interpretation of the atonement for the people that was included in Aaron’s offering is that Aaron’s sin “was a great stumbling block for the people”. However, his reference to the verse in Leviticus 4:3 can be plausibly interpreted in the way that I am suggesting in this post, even though this is not quite the way he explains it.
  5. Leviticus 4:3. The translation is mine, others such as the translation on renders it as “If the anointed kohen sins, bringing guilt to the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed”

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