“What is leadership?” It’s a simple question but very difficult to answer.
“Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth,” was the observation of James MacGregor Burns. It is most observed because we encounter it everywhere in large and small forms. It is least understood partly because it is a many-sided and complex. We know it when we see it–or at least think we do–but its essence is hard to describe. It’s a question that has many answers.
I recently found one of the. best and most biblical answers in a book by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of the UK. Rabbi Sacks thinks deeply about Scripture and the contemporary world. He locates his answer squarely in the biblical text of Genesis. Leadership begins, he says, with accepting our god-given responsibilities. Leaders recognize and live out their responsibilities in three important areas: personally, morally, and communally.
Leaders accept personal responsibility for their actions. The account in Genesis 1 to 3 of Adam and Eve illustrates a failure to accept responsibility. After eating from the tree that God has placed off limits, Eve attempts to shift responsibility to the serpent.. “How could you do such a thing?” God asks. “The serpent tricked me,” she replies, “that’s why I ate it.” In other words, “Don’t blame me. It was that guy over there!”
Adam, does even worse. In a single sentence, stunning for its misdirection, he attempts to shift the blame first to Eve and then to God himself. “The woman that you gave me brought me the fruit and I ate it.” It was not my fault, he says, but hers. Then. to further protect himself, he blames God. “You gave her to me,” God, “so keep in mind who really created this problem.”
Leadership either fails or begins at exactly this point. Leadership requires accepting responsibility for your own actions. Negatively, it means not denying responsibility for your mistakes, failures, errors, or even for your willful sins. Blame shifting creates a confusing miasma of uncertainty, a pattern of diffused and uncertain responsibility that makes positive action difficult or impossible. Leadership is different. It faces the hard facts, accepts and admits responsibility where necessary, and then turns to finding a way forward. That’s true character and real leadership.
In my next posts, I’ll consider the other two dimensions of responsibility: moral and communal.