Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Leadership and the Problem of Ego

It seems to be a regular occurrence now: charismatic leader gains large following, great popularity. Charismatic leader lets popularity get to his head. Charismatic leader engages in bad, dangerous, harmful behavior. Leader falls from grace. Community suffers.
In a way, it seems natural, almost expected. We all think that we’d be immune, but we’re not being honest. (Kind of like the way we tell ourselves that we’d give so much to charity if only we won the lottery. It’s very easy to give away money you don’t have. It’s much harder to write the check when someone’s actually going to cash it.) The same rule applies to ego: humility’s not a big deal when you’re not a popular person.
But imagine if you are popular – not in the modern media sense, but in the sense that people seek you out. They thirst not only for your teachings, which today can become instantaneously recognized worldwide, but also for your personal counsel. They want to meet with you at all hours of the day and night, and are constantly hounding you for attention.
At some point, does it not make sense for a person to begin to believe what everyone else does: that he really is special, important, even different; that he has unique qualities that make him indispensible, even invincible; that the rules don’t really apply to him they way they do to everyone else?
This, the Torah tells us, was Moshe Rabbeinu’s greatest quality. At the conclusion of the Torah we read that Moshe was ענו מכל אדם – “the most humble of men.” He wasn’t the smartest, the wisest, probably not the best looking. No, he was the most humble. Some part of us wonders, “Is that the best that the Torah can tell us about him? Wasn’t their some trait that outshone his humility?” The reason that we wonder is because we were not in his shoes. We didn’t stand on Sinai and receive the Torah from God. We did not challenge the leader of the world and redeem a people from bondage. We didn’t create a people and change world history forever.
Moshe did. And, as opposed to every single one of us, he amazingly realized that for all of his historic accomplishments, they weren’t really his after all. He had the unique self-awareness to know that it wasn’t really him after all. He never allowed himself to believe his own press.
And that’s how he remained Moshe Rabbeinu. Because imagine if he lacked that sense of humility – God forbid. Imagine that he one day began to see his accomplishments and achievements as symbolic of his own greatness. Imagine if he let things go to his head. What would have come of the Torah that he delivered from God and transmitted to the people?
We all want that great popularity so sought after today. We think that we could handle the pressure with grace and ease, and be the leaders we imagine we should be.
I’m not so sure. Humility seems so simple. Yet for most of us, it often proves elusive.