I was listening to a TED talk recently, given by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. You may have heard about her book about women in leadership, Lean In and about her "Ban Bossy" campaign. No small wonder that I'm interested in the leadership philosophy and wisdom of a successful female leader.... One of the points Ms. Sandberg makes is that men have no problem giving themselves credit for their success and that women are much more self-deprecating. A man's message might be: "Yes, I'm great and I accomplished this task." A woman's message might be: "Yes, we did great work together to accomplish this task." The difference might not be in the actual work of leadership exercised by the male or female leader, but in the way each leader describes, and ascribes, his or her success.
All of this was still percolating in my mind as I tracked, with great interest, President Barack Obama's visit to Pope Francis this week. This visit was of particular interest to me because I have such deep admiration for Pope Francis. I share the same points of disagreement with the pontiff that President Obama has expressed: contraception, abortion and the consequences of these policies as they affect the health care options of employees of the Catholic Church in the United States. But there are so many ways in which I admire Pope Francis: There seems to be no factoring of political (even church-related political) consequences when Pope Francis speaks. He speaks out, and follows through with his actions, because there are truths that need to be aired. His humility is inspiring because it is integral to his being. There is no other way for him to be.
President Obama gave an interview on CBS after his visit with the pope. Commenting on the experience of standing in Pope Francis' presence, President Obama observed: "...nothing is more powerful than someone who lives out his convictions." This was a perceptive remark that I appreciate very much, for I, too, hold deep respect for those who move through this world guided humbly by their ideological convictions. And I find that the most powerfully impressive people are the most soft-spoken and yes, Sheryl Sandberg, the most self-deprecating. The message that reaches the deepest into the consciousnesses of those around us is: "it's not about me."
Perhaps President Obama and Pope Francis are admirably in touch with their feminine sides . . . but I find myself drawn to the leadership of those who are guided by that which is greater than human scope and who have the strength and self-confidence to acknowledge that our greatest attainments are never reached in a vacuum of our own effort and vision.
I am impressed by another quality shared by President Obama and Pope Francis, which was also shared by Nelson Mandela. I wrote about Mr. Mandela a few months ago and remarked on his extraordinary capacity to focus on the qualities of the human being and the nuances of the issue before him without pre-judgment or bias. I had a sense of the exercise of humility and perspective at work in the meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis: the whole world knew about every issue on which these leaders disagree, substantive issues. And yet, both leaders seemed to approach the opportunity of their discourse not to convince the other of the error of his ways, but rather to explore the possibilities of advancing their shared visions and goals.
I don't think that the words "humility" and "leadership" are often appear in combination . . . except, perhaps, as conflicting dynamics. That is definitely worth re-thinking. I'm all for "leaning in" when the opportunity arises to take on a substantive leadership task...as long as that opportunity is embraced with humility. That leads us to powerful leadership.
There are times when the universe seems to conspire to challenge us: The week people around the world are mourning the quintessential man of integrity, peace, mature judgement and courage, Nelson Mandela, is the week millions of people around the United States are marking the 1st anniversary of the horrific Newtown school massacre.
As the senseless deaths of twenty six-year olds and their teachers sank in, we sensed that there might be a glimmer of hope. Cynically, we noted that at least twenty children of color from disadvantaged homes were victims of gun violence every year in the United States and those "incidents" made barely a ripple on the national stage . . . perhaps the deaths of these twenty white children from privileged Connecticut would shake our nation out of our complacency and spur some serious gun control legislation and enforcement.
In truth, it's a mixed bag: In a number of states, proactive and balanced gun legislation was passed (including in New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and California). According to the New York Times (December 10, 2013), 109 new state gun bills became law in the year since the Newtown shootings. 39 of these new bills tighten gun restrictions. 70 of these new bills loosen gun restrictions. 14 of the 39 new bills relate to gun possession and mental health issues (including the creation of a task force here in Rhode Island mandated to review existing laws related to firearms and behavioral issues). 10 of the 39 new laws relate to strengthening or establishing background checks for the purchase of firearms. In Rhode Island, a bill became law in July making it illegal to receive, transport or possess any firearm whose identification has been altered.
The fact that more bills loosened gun restrictions than tightened them is an indication that we as a nation are struggling mightily with this issue. We need to conduct respectful and focussed and informed conversations about the place of firearms in our society.
We do not need fear tactics. We do not need polarizing rhetoric.
And yet, guns and public safety researcher, Timothy Johnson of MediaMatters.org reported today: As the one-year anniversary of the December 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School approaches, National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent is blaming "the self-inflicted scourge of political correctness" for the shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut.
In his regular column for conspiracy website WND, Nugent wrote on December 11 that unless America followed a series of his policy recommendations -- including arming teachers, eliminating "gun-free zones," and getting "deranged people off the streets" -- "then those precious little 20 children and their six teachers and faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary died for nothing."
In the week we are mourning the death of Nelson Mandela--a man who never let himself be swayed by the assumptions and biases of others-- it is anathema to evoke the Holocaust as a support for the loosening of gun control. In a January 24, 2013 press release, the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) reported:
As a self-determining people with our own sovereign country, language, cultural and religious heritage and economic resources, we can take part in any policy or cultural debate without "playing the Holocaust card." We don't need anyone's pity and it is not becoming to assume a pathetic posture.
We also acknowledge that the Jewish people do not hold exclusive rights as victims of Nazi genocide: there is just as solid documentation that the lives of gypsies, homosexuals, those suffering mental illness and political dissidents were just as callously discarded as were the lives of 6 million Jews.
Nonetheless, no one has the right to distort these truths to make political hay. Do you want to defend the status quo in gun possession? Speak with integrity and make your case, don't throw around emotional bombs like "Holocaust" and "Nazi." Do you have confidence that loosening gun restrictions is the responsible next step in our country's civic life? Speak with integrity and make your case with logic, accuracy and integrity: do not take the names and lives of the Newtown victims in vain.
I'd like to suggest, though, that a more meaningful tribute to the memory and meaning of Nelson Mandela finds expression in the acknowledgement of the fact that the relationship between the Jews, Israel and Nelson Mandela were not always the most amicable.
Indeed, it is no more than historical fact that Israel long supported, and sold arms to, the South African regime that oppressed and imprisoned Mr. Mandela and that Israel was among the last nations of the world to join in isolating South Africa at the end of Apartheid. For many of us in Israel, this policy was disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were publicly staunch supporters of Mr. Mandela and the ANC. The two liberation movements were drawn together by the parallels they perceived in their respective experiences.
Given this background, Mr. Mandela's attitude toward Israel and toward the conflicts in the Middle East are very impressive: rather than being drawn into a partisan relationship with the Palestinian people, Nelson Mandela assessed the parties involved through the lens of his own wisdom and experience. Indeed, according to an article published today in the Times of Israel, Mandela had the clear vision and presence of mind to use the occasion of his own presidential inauguration to bring the warring parties of the Middle East together.
In other contexts, Nelson Mandela publicly expressed his support for a secure and stable Israel, acknowledged personal ties with South African Jews who had stood by his side in his youth, and had even commented, on the eve of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, that Yitzhak Rabin was more deserving of that prize than himself.
In our culture of growing polarization, in politics, in economics, in religion . . . a voice of balance and integrity like Mr. Mandela's should be exalted. And the loss of such a voice should be deeply mourned.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.