The theme of my column is leadership. As a general rule I avoid extrapolating leadership lessons from current events. The following is my reasoning. First, the information available from current events is often incomplete and inaccurate. Even when the information is relatively complete and accurate it is unanalyzed. Therefore the basis for lessons learned may prove to be faulty. Second, current events are often too current. To attempt to draw practical lessons in a dispassionate way would be insensitive. At least a minimal amount of time is needed to create the space necessary to allow for such an article. I have relied on the publication of books and scholarly articles on a particular recent event as an indicator that an appropriate amount of time has passed, thus allowing me to write a leadership article about it.
Like any good rule, however, there need to be exceptions. The all too recent hurricane that shattered an untold number of lives is such an exception. I thank Hakadosh Baruch Hu that my family was spared during this storm, but many of my colleagues, students, and friends suffered from its power and continue to suffer in its aftermath. From them I heard stories of hope and chesed that are unbelievable. I also learned from them a more nuanced definition of leadership.
We read in this week’s Parsha how important a bracha is. Even Esav, the rough and tough warrior and hunter, cries uncontrollably because he missed getting blessed by his father Yitzchak. It makes us stop and wonder what it was that made Esav so upset. It certainly was not his losing out on the spiritual aspect of the blessing. One also wonders if he was upset at losing out at the material aspect – after all, he received a material blessing from Yitzchak and it is clear that his descendants have done materialistically well for themselves.
So what was Esav upset about? That he lost out on the encouraging good words from his father. He missed out on the emotional laden blessing that could have served as Esav’s lodestar throughout his life. It could have served as a source of strength and hope when things were not so good, and a moral compass for when things were going well. Fortunately for us, the children of Yisrael, our forefather Yaakov received this blessing and we benefit from what the descendants of Esav missed out on.
We see from here how important a simple string of words can be.
Leaders often focus on the big vision and the mega-decisions, but the primary role of leadership is to give hope and guidance to one’s followers and organizations. In this regard everyone who helps another person get through a day is a leader.
One of my friends who has suffered tremendously from the storm told me the following story.
On the Sunday following the storm, she was surveying the extensive damage to her house. She had just thrown out all her ruined sefarim, books, and furniture. Looking at her damaged home, wondering how long she and her family would remain nomads, how she was going to rebuild, and where she would find the moral energy to move forward, she became totally overwhelmed. Although she had been strong during and after the storm, she had finally reached her breaking point. Then suddenly out of the blue, at 1:20 p.m., she received a random text from a friend saying how inspired she was by her, because despite everything she was experiencing, her thoughts and prayers were about other people! This text, my friend told me, gave her and her husband the boost they needed. Her message to me was simple: while victims of the hurricane need lots of help in so many ways, people should not underestimate the power of a thoughtful word and a sympathetic ear, in addition to an outstretched helping hand.Rabbi David Hertzberg