CSM Sam Yudin, CA ARNG
Most people who have served in my formations recently have heard me say that a leader must be authentic, engaged, and ethical. Being authentic and ethical are seemingly straightforward. You just need to be yourself and do the right thing. But how does a leader stay engaged, and why is it important?
A 2012 Norwegian study conducted by M.S. Aasland and colleagues, titled the “Prevalence of Destructive Leadership Behavior,” found that the most common type of bad or destructive leadership was not what is commonly referred to as “toxic,” or perhaps a more apt term, “tyrannical.” The most common form of destructive leadership by far was unengaged and passive leaders who exhibit indirect negative behavior. This study and many others show that most negative outcomes in organizations come from unengaged leaders.
Being an engaged leader is complicated. It takes time and effort. These studies show that a majority of people in leadership positions do not put in the time and effort required for their role. One positive product of being an engaged leader is you know your people. You build trust with them by being curious about them, their lives, and their goals. Trust is the foundation of our profession. As Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22, Army Leadership states, “An effective leader…” is “… a person of integrity who builds trust and applies sound judgment to influence others.” You build trust starting by being engaged.
There is a story in the Talmud (Berakhot 27b and 28a) that illustrates so many great points about leadership. The point that is most applicable to this discussion is the importance of knowing your people:
A dispute arose between the rabbis of the time whether the evening prayers were optional or obligatory. A student asked one leading sage, Rabbi Yehoshua, who said the prayers were optional. The student then approached the head of the study hall (known in the Hebrew as the nasi), Rabbi Gamliel, who said they were obligatory. The student then told Rabbi Gamliel that Rabbi Yehoshua said unequivocally the exact opposite—that the prayers were optional.
Rabbi Gamliel resolved to bring the issue to debate and brought up the matter in the council of the rabbis. Standing up, he stated the prayers were obligatory. “Who disagrees with me?” he called out, perhaps even aggressively. With a vote being held, Rabbi Yehoshua responded “no” when his turn came, as he did not want to argue with the Head of the Study Hall in public. Rabbi Gamliel decided to push the issue—he insisted that Rabbi Yehoshua stand, pointedly questioning, “Did you not say the prayers were optional?!” Rabbi Yehoshua was forced to admit that he differed; yet Rabbi Gamliel did not let the matter go, keeping Rabbi Yehoshua on his feet until those present objected. The assembled rabbis were so dismayed at how Rabbi Gamliel was afflicting Rabbi Yehoshua that they removed him from his position as nasi.
Now deposed of his position, Rabbi Gamliel eventually realized that he must right their personal differences. Contrite, he went to Rabbi Yehoshua’s house to appease him. When he came to Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, he saw that his walls were black from soot— it dawned on him that Rabbi Yehoshua
was a blacksmith. He had no idea that Rabbi Yehoshua had such a laborious profession in order to support his Torah study, and he expressed his surprise. Rabbi Yehoshua replied sadly, “Woe unto a generation that you are its leader, as you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, how they make a living and how they feed themselves!”
How different would this story be if Rabbi Gamliel was curious about his followers? Had he known the sacrifices others make to do things that are comfortable for him, would he take a different leadership approach? Perhaps he would have had empathy and been more accommodating. He could possibly have been more inclusive and less judgmental. Through engaged leadership he would have been able to take more appropriate leadership approaches and built a more achieving cohesive team. I too have at points, been guilty, as Rabbi Gamliel was, of not knowing the plight of my Soldiers. I should have been more curious, empathetic, and accommodating. It might have slowed down progress or standards temporarily, but it would have built a stronger, higher performing team in the end.
How does a leader get to know their people? They engage with them. They have their scheduled performance counseling sessions and ask genuine and serious questions designed to improve the lives of their people. A 2010 study at McGill University found that incoming students who reflected on personal goals had better GPAs, were more likely to maintain a full course load, were more resilient, and increased graduation rates by 40%. An engaged leader conducts performance counseling sessions with their people along the same domains of that study focusing on their issues and goals. This builds resilient, trustworthy, cohesive, and successful teams with unlimited positive outcomes.
Originally published in the summer 2023 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.