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Leadership Lessons From The Haggadah

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Once a week I teach a leadership class to a group of 8th grade students who have demonstrated both an aptitude and interest in the subject. In an effort to teach them that leadership lessons can be derived from anywhere I distributed a copy of the ill-fated Titanic’s Third Class menu. The heading stated that this was the Third Class menu and right under a caveat that the menu was subject to alterations. The menu was divided by day and meals, thus laying out the food options for the week. (As a point of interest it should be noted that the Titanic’s Third Class food was actually pretty decent.) Toward the bottom of the page the menu stated that fresh fish would be available as the opportunity presented itself. On the very bottom of the page it said that  kosher food was available. After reviewing the menu with my students for a few minutes I instructed them to extrapolate some leadership lessons from it. After giving me a somewhat bewildered look they got to work. I myself took part in the assignment and the following are some of the lessons we derived.

An obvious lesson is the importance of having a plan. Without a plan of action, a leader will never be able to lead his followers anywhere, no matter how important the destination or lofty the goal. But a truism with plans is that they rarely survive intact. Therefore, like the menu says, a leader must be flexible enough to alter his game plan as the need arises.  Such flexibility also manifests itself with respect to recognizing unexpected opportunities. Just as fresh fish would be served depending on availability, so, too, leaders must be on the lookout for opportunities that can be exploited. Lastly, one of the students offered a very novel insight inspired by the sentence indicating the availability of kosher food. Although it was clear that the majority of the passengers on the ship did not eat kosher, a leader is responsible for the needs of all his followers, not just the majority of them. Once a person is part of a team his individual needs and concerns become the leader’s as well.

With a similar lens we can derive many leadership lessons from the Haggadah. To begin with, the listing of the simanim at the outset of the Seder indicates the importance of having a plan. The Seder, as its name connotes, is all about order and organization. And certainly no other ceremony involves as much preparation – another key ingredient for success.

Toward the end of the Magid, Rabban Gamliel presents us with what, according to many authorities, is the bare minimum of the Pesach story that a person must retell and explain in order to fulfill the mitzvah of teaching the story of Yitziyat Mitzraim to our children. In life, to be able to distill a message to its essence, a person must know the message inside out. Only with such thorough knowledge can one know what must be kept in and what, given current circumstances, must be edited out. To know when this should be done, a person must be acutely aware of the context and necessities of the moment. Without such situational awareness a person will not know that he has to adjust his plan. And, naturally, for a person to be able to do this he has to have the ability, courage and confidence to be flexible.

One of the most central parts of the Haggadah is the section on the four sons. While the main lesson of this section is that a parent/teacher must use the most appropriate educational means and modalities for each type of child, the greatest challenge of this section is a bit more subtle. While it is difficult enough to develop a lesson that reaches and inspires a particular type of child, it is that much harder when the same lesson has to reach and inspire different types of children at the same time. In such a case a person may find himself in a zero-sum game of sorts. What works for one doesn’t work for another. Thus, the greatest challenge for the parent retelling the story of the Exodus at the Seder is to tell it in a way that enlightens all the different types of children at the table during the same meal. A leader must be cognizant of this challenge as well. Often a leader has multiple constituencies who not only have many different needs, but have mutually exclusive needs. A leader must learn how to recognize these needs, identify the problem areas and chart a course that is meaningful to everyone.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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