Friday, March 23, 2018

Shabbat HaGadol: Competent Followers

Competent Followers
A Message for Shabbat HaGadol 2017
Click here to view as PDF

Most of us are conditioned to primarily evaluate the “leadership” of an initiative or institution when assessing its success. Our general theory is that the greatness of an operation is mostly dependent upon the strength and competency of its leaders. A recent opinion column in The New York Times accordingly noted that many leading universities excessively boast their association with leadership: Princeton’s website lists “leadership activities” as the first on a list of characteristics for would-be students to showcase, Harvard’s application informs that its mission is “to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society,” and Yale’s website informs applicants that it seeks “the leaders of their generation.”[1]

In the days and hours leading up to the exodus from Egypt and the historic establishment of Am Yisrael, we might then expect the emergence of a new crop of leadership. And yet, the Torah does not emphasize the “leaders” of that time, but rather the “followers”:

And Moshe called all the elders of Yisrael and said to them, “Draw out and take yourselves sheep according to your clans and slaughter the Pesah offering” … And Bnei Yisrael went and did as God had charged Moshe and Aharon, thus they did do. (Shemot 12:21,28) 

And Bnei Yisrael had done according to Moshe’s word, and they had asked of the Egyptians ornaments of silver and ornaments of god and cloaks. (35) 

And God said to Moshe and Aharon, “This is the statute of the Pesah offering: no foreigner shall eat of it” … And all Bnei Yisrael did as God had charged Moshe and Aharon, thus did they do. (43, 50) 

In a 1988 Harvard Business Review article, Robert Kelley defined a discipline in organizational psychology termed “followership.” He listed the qualities of a good follower as one committed to “a purpose, principle or person outside of themselves,” and being “courageous, honest and credible.” Kelly explained that “companies will not succeed without the kind of people who take pride and satisfaction in the role of supporting player, doing the less glorious work without fanfare.” He wrote that the best bet for true success is to be found in a healthy culture of “followership.”[2]

The importance of a strong “followership” is sorely missing from our current societal landscape. Unfortunately, “leadership” reigns as the single qualification in the contemporary vision of a path to success. David Brooks suggested that our society’s misconception stems from its collective cynicism, as people believe that they are better than everything else around them. Steering his readers to the proper path, Brooks cited from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoir “At Ease”:

Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you. 

It is a statement that is perhaps better known to us from Ben Zoma:

Who is wise? He who learns from all people.[3]

Brooks further explained that good leaders need good followers. The followers must possess the ability to "recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it."[4] A positive partnership is the core ingredient for all successful operations.

The Torah’s repeated mention of the nation’s obedience during the critical moments of its formation teaches the invaluable lesson of “followership.” Learning from the success of Am Yisrael at that time, the model of a strong “followership” must serve as our compass for success in all walks of life. 

[1] Susan Cain, “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers,” The New York Times, March 24, 2017.

[2] Robert Kelley, “In Praise of Followers,” Harvard Business Review, November 1988.

[3] Avot 4:1.

[4] David Brooks, “The Follower Problem,” The New York Times, June 11, 2012. See, as well, Brooks’ The Road to Character (New York, 2015), pg. 63.