The great military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, in his discussion regarding military genius, underscores the critical importance of a military leader maintaining his presence of mind during a crisis. This ability is tested most when confronting unforeseen and unanticipated events. Clausewitz writes that, “Two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead” (On War,edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, p. 102). Later in the chapter he states this idea even more clearly. The strength of mind that a general requires is “the ability to keep one’s head at times of exceptional stress and violent emotion” (p.105).
The importance of keeping one’s calm under pressure is not limited to the military. Leaders in all professions, businesses and organizations are best served by a calm and cool disposition no matter what winds of storms life may throw their way. While this particular idea is one I have written about in the past, I recently had the opportunity to reconsider its centrality to effective leadership from a surprising source – one of our school’s 8th grade basketball players.
One morning, before class started, I was in the hall speaking with some students. I was discussing with them the importance of working hard in class. In an effort to bring home my point I said to the point guard of our team that at the very least, if he should perform below his expectations in class, he should be frustrated as he is when his team is losing a game. He responded immediately saying that he doesn’t get frustrated in basketball. Somewhat surprised at his answer, because I know how seriously he takes the game, I challenged him. “Weren’t you upset last year when your team lost in the championship?” Without missing a beat he answered, “Of course I was upset. But being upset is different from being frustrated. When you’re frustrated you make mistakes. When you are just upset you are still focused on what’s going on. That’s why I am a good point guard. I only get upset – not frustrated.”
After hearing his explanation I told him that his comments were probably the most insightful I would hear that day. In those few sentences he captured one of the most important aspects of leadership. In fact, if we look carefully in this week’s parsha and with reference to the surrounding parshiyot we can see that the ability to remain calm under pressure was one of the attributes that qualified Yehuda for the leadership of Bnei Yisrael.
When Yaakov’s sons returned home from Egypt with Yosef’s demand to return with Binyamin, Yaakov refuses in the strongest of terms. Reuven impulsively responds that Yaakov can kill Reuven’s children if he does not bring Binyamin back alive. While Reuven’s sense of responsibility is admirable, his action plan left much to be desired. Even assuming Reuven merely was attempting to drive home to Yaakov the urgency of the situation and the high likelihood of success (after all, Reuven could not have actually contemplated murder), his response seems a result of his anxiety and frustration. Thus, he suggests a mode of action that has no chance of being adopted, let alone succeeding.
Yehuda, on the other hand, while upset at what he must perceive as an unnecessary delay, cautions his brothers against immediate action. Rashi (43:2) describes how Yehuda instructed his brothers to wait until their food supplies were depleted. At that point Yaakov would have no choice but to agree to send Binyamin. When that time arrived, Yehuda explained to Yaakov the necessity of bringing Binyamin with them. To alleviate Yaakov’s concerns, Yehuda personally guarantees Binyamin’s safety. With no choice, Yaakov acquiesces.
This ability to remain calm under pressure and continue to see the situation clearly is a hallmark of Yehuda’s leadership. When subtly accused in last week’s parsha by Tamar of misdeeds, far from losing his posture, Yehuda quickly accepts responsibility and converts a potentially tragic event into the beginning of our national redemption. Likewise, we see in next week’s parsha when bnei Yaakov are on the verge of catastrophe at the hands of Yosef, Yehuda once again maintains his calm and control of the situation, and approaches Yosef guided by a complex strategy.
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of remaining even-keeled under pressure. It is for this reason that many military theorists throughout the ages have argued that the primary target in war is the inside of the enemy commander’s head. In line with what my student told me, it’s okay to get upset – that’s what motivates us to rise to the occasion. But a leader should never get frustrated and make decisions in that frame of mind. As in basketball, that will be a play that will end in failure every time.