What Do We Need from Our Leaders?

This article was written for the 2009 Why Be Jewish Gathering: Renaissance in a Time of Ration, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Bronfman Vision Forum.

Let me begin by stating the obvious.  When we speak of leaders, we are speaking about human beings.  This is a self-evident but elusive fact of life; we know it and yet we consistently expect or imagine our leaders to be superhuman, and we are disappointed when they are not.

It is natural, when discussing leadership, to focus on what makes leaders exceptional.  I want to begin our discussion of leadership, instead, by focusing on the shared humanity of those who assume leadership in a given situation, and those who are looking to others to provide leadership.

Why is this important as a starting place for our conversation about leadership? Because it reminds us of what leaders can and cannot offer.

Leaders cannot offer perfect guidance, certainty, or control.  As human beings, we must stand humbly before the mystery of life and of death.  We cannot anticipate the future, of course; but more than that, we cannot even hope to grasp the full meaning of what has passed, or to understand the infinite complexity of the moment in which we live.  These are aspects of the human condition that we all share, though we experience and respond to them in different ways.

To make matters worse, we are each uniquely imperfect vessels, limited and flawed in our own particular ways.  Our effectiveness as leaders depends, to a great extent, on our capacity to see, understand and respond compassionately to our own limitations and the limitations of others.

What, then, can a good leader offer?  Leaders can help awaken, respond to and give direction to the basic human need for meaning and connection.

There are questions that beckon to each of us throughout our lives.  Who am I?  To whom am I responsible (or, who do I love?)  What is my purpose?

At times, we are prepared to face these questions; at other times, for one reason or another, we may flee from them.  But, for those who wish to engage in authentic and effective leadership – particularly religious leadership – the willingness to hear and respond to these questions with an open heart is essential.

Posted on May 18, 2009

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