Sometimes It’s About The Way We Tie Our Shoelaces

shoelacesBy Dr. Hal M. Lewis

What do last month’s vote of the international USY board to drop its ban on inter-dating, President Obama’s decision not to participate in the events following the horrific murders in Paris, and recent revelations that a prominent Louisiana politician campaigned before a White supremacist group, have in common? While at first blush any connection seems hard to find, I would suggest that upon closer examination, particularly when refracted through the lens of classical Jewish teachings, all three have an important lesson to teach about leadership.

To be clear, I know nothing more about any of these episodes than what I have read in news accounts. I possess no inside knowledge about what drove the vote of the USY board. Nor do I know the “real” motive behind the White House’s decision not to attend the rally and then to apologize for it. And I cannot say with any certainty whether the now Majority Whip knew to whom he was speaking back then.

But what I do know is that all three of these incidents, disparate as they might seem, underscore the often-overlooked reality that optics matter, and that those in positions of leadership are frequently held to a different standard, like it or not.

From a Jewish perspective, to be a leader is to be a dugma – a role model. However unfair, when you are a leader people care about what you do, not only at the ‘office’ but in private as well. A leader’s conduct is subject to increased scrutiny, even when similar actions on the part of non-leaders are likely to go unnoticed. Behavior that once passed into insignificance becomes magnified under what Wasserman and Katz (2011) call “the invisible spotlight.”

Even well intentioned leaders, who commit no egregious faux pas, often fail to appreciate the importance of what it means to be an exemplar. Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, reflected candidly on her experiences after becoming an executive:

“Everybody is looking at you. You can destroy someone by showing your emotions, particularly negative ones … If you come into the office looking like you’re having a very bad day, everyone reacts to your mood.

As chief executive, you have to consciously set the right tone … CEOs have to manage those unintended displays, because of how much impact they have on other people.”

Leaders who object to life under the glaring spotlight, who would prefer to be judged by the same rules as everyone else, fail to grasp what it means to lead. The reality is that while leaders and followers come from the same place, they rarely occupy the same space. There is no level playing field; leaders are held to a different standard. And as a result, being aware of the implications of our behavior should be a critical part of the calculus we make every day as leaders.

In discussing the excessively harsh punishment Moses received for hitting the rock in the Dessert of Zin (Numbers 20), resulting in his denied entry to the Promised Land, Maimonides offers the following insights into what it means to be a leader: “God was strict with him [Moses] because … they [the people] all modeled their actions upon his and studied his every word … Everything Moses said and did was scrutinized by them” (Shemoneh Perakim).

Could anything be less fair? A leader, even a great leader, should be allowed some private time, not to have everything she says or does be exposed to public attention. Leaders are regular people too, aren’t they?

Sadly, it is not that simple. To lead is to forever be in the public eye and to be held to account for what others might not. If being like everyone else is your goal, it is time to find alternate work. This is true whether you are an officer in your youth group or an elected representative. It may be unreasonable to hold clergy, or CEOs, or public officials to a different standard; some might even call it hypocritical or two-faced. After all, who could blame youth workers or camp counselors for not thinking about the professional ramifications when they post to their private Facebook page, or communal fundraisers for just wanting to kick back with their friends without having to swim in the fishbowl that is Jewish communal life? Why should executives, who already face enormous pressure, need to think about personal image and messaging off the job? The answer is, because people are watching, and scrutinizing, and judging, and it doesn’t stop in the elevator exiting the C-suite. The sooner we understand that, the more effective we will be as leaders.

A story is told about the great hasidic master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, that underscores the essence of what it means to be a dugma, a paradigm of leadership. “I traveled to see the maggid,” reported one of his followers, “not to hear Torah from him, but to see how he ties and unties his shoelaces.” “Honestly?” we can imagine contemporary leaders protesting. “Give the poor maggid a break! Can’t he even tie his shoes without people watching?” Truth be told, no; they are always watching and sometimes it is about the way we we tie our shoelaces.

We who lead are moral exemplars; role models for those who follow us. It may not be fair, but our affiliations and private behaviors, where we show up, and how we comport ourselves, say as much or more about our leadership as the votes we cast and the official positions we take. To be sure, there are those who would dismiss the campaign address before a hateful group as nothing more than naiveté, just as there are those who would rationalize the President’s failure to go to Paris by citing extenuating circumstances. And there are those who seek to minimize the impact of the change in USY policy by saying that it affects only an extremely small element of the organization’s membership.

Woven throughout the tapestry formed by these three incidents, however, is an unmistakable message that optics matter, because, fairly or not, leaders will always be held to a different standard. That small segment of those affected by the vote of the International USY board is not just any small segment; it is the leadership of the organization. The President’s appearance in Paris would have sent a message that no one else could have sent, precisely because he is the President. And those aspiring for office need to be concerned about who their supporters are because leaders are always role models for others. For those who lead the rules are never the same. That, after all, is the essence of leadership.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include “Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership” and “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.” He can be reached at