In A Perfect World
The only word I can use to describe the feeling that rose up in me when I heard the head counselor announce my name is “dismay.” Maybe with a touch of panic as well.
Me, captain of Color War?
Color War is supposed to be a fun time, a few frenetic days and nights of teamwork, of throwing yourselves heart and soul into creating, competing and, hopefully, winning. Who wanted to occupy the lonely spot at the top? Certainly not me.
But the choice was not mine to make. By divine fate and the head counselor’s edict, a leadership position lay in my immediate future. It was as if the whole camp had decided to play a massive game of “tag” in which everyone but me had cried, “Not it!” “Not it!”
Like it or not, I was “it”.
Being a leader means taking responsibility for everything: success, failure, and every single possible debacle or near-disaster in between. It means motivating those under you to bring the very best out of themselves. It can mean (and certainly did mean, during that long-ago Color War) ragged nerves and sleepless nights. Looking back, I can see how the experience was probably beneficial for me. In the end, I think I grew from it. The job pulled me out of passivity. It forced me to play my “A” game. Still, given the choice, I never would have undertaken the job. Much more fun being a part of the gang than the whip-cracker urging the others on.
There are people who are natural leaders. They would not feel dismayed at being handed the mission of heading a team or a regiment or a camp Color War; they thrive on such things. Others recoil from leadership positions as if they were poison. Sometimes we get to choose; other times, the role is thrust upon us. History is full of individuals who did not necessarily seek to lead but who, in the fulness of time, walked a road that led them right to the pinnacle of power.
These were visionaries, men and women willing to do whatever it took to change the world. Including detaching themselves from the safe and comfortable crowd and climbing that tall, lonely mountain… to stand alone at the top.
The Pitfalls of Power
I once heard about a masterful educator who, when applying for a principal’s position, was turned down. The reason? Having done its due diligence, the search committee felt that, while the candidate was able to successfully dominate a classroom, he would not do so well in a position of ultimate power as the school’s top administrator.
This was a nuanced judgement, based on a serious personality assessment of the candidate in question. While some people can be ruled out because are simply ineffective as leaders, others are almost too effective. They are so strong, so capable, so self-confident, that the role can affect them the way a drug affects the vulnerable. Drunk on their own power, it can go straight to their heads. And when that happens, good middos and balanced decisions fly right out the schoolhouse door.
My husband, a longtime mechanech, once described to me how he would approach the subject of asking his young talmidim to stand up when he walked into the classroom. He would explain that it was not a matter of his personal honor; rather, it was an issue of kavod haTorah. As soon as honor is allowed to become personal, it is lethal to good character. Those who crave the honor that comes along with power are the very ones who should stay far away from positions of power.
Our nation’s first and greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, managed to avoid this pitfall. He did it by cultivating an attitude of extreme humbleness. And he did that by always bearing in mind exactly Whom he was representing and serving. When comparing oneself to Hakadosh Boruch Hu, humility is the only sane approach.
The problems arise when a person in a leadership position looks down instead of up. When he sees himself as somehow superior to those he is called upon to lead. When the position entices him with its power, rather than sobering him with its immense responsibility.
The Right (Wo)Man for the Job
Sometimes, as we said, a person does not seek out leadership but is thrust into it. An individual sees a need in his society and has an urge to fill it. He notices an area that is ailing and steps into the breach to begin the healing. In the process of fixing the societal problem, he or she is pushed, either by an inner drive, by those around them, or both, into the role of mustering others to help them in their quest. In other words, the role of leader.
An example that immediately springs to mind is Sara Schenirer. A quiet, thoughtful woman, she was neither attracted to nor motivated by power and its trappings. But she saw a serious problem and felt impelled to try to correct it. That her noble vision placed her in a position of having to serve as a practical and spiritual leader to thousands of souls was not the goal but only the by-product of her vision. Which, when you come right down to it, is really the best kind of leader there is.
The Tanna Hillel tells us (Pirkei Avos 2:6): In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader. If you see a vacuum, try to fill it. If you notice a problem, try to correct it. Even if that means abandoning your safe, anonymous place on the smooth plains of society and stepping up to the high, windy and sometimes precarious pinnacle of leadership.
Becoming a leader means far more than merely wielding power and receiving a certain amount of honor. It means opening yourself up to criticism. It means having to make tough decisions, and then having those decisions questioned. It means teetering on a mountaintop, where the air may be heady but can also be hard to breathe.
Sometimes we have no real choice. Hashem brings about the circumstances of our lives in such a way that the message is clear. You’re the one with the experience, the ability, the vision. You’re the person ideally situated to make a necessary change in the world around you. You may not have been looking for the job, but the job seems to have found you.
Now and then, as we go through life, many of us will find ourselves pushed out of our comfort zone and into a wider one, where we have the potential to make a valuable impact on those around us. A zone where we will be able to fill a need, influence minds, or instigate change. A zone, in other words, in which we will be called upon to lead.
You may relish the role, or you may loathe it. Either way, it will become crystal clear that this is the role you were meant to play. Heaven has brought you to this place, this time, this decision. Everything in your life up until now has led you to this crossroads.
You may not like it. You may not want it. But the indicators are all there and the reality will not be denied: in this particular game of life, right here and right now… you’re “it.”