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.
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.