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Martyrdom and Slavery Are Not Part of Leadership: Mitzvahs May Be Applauded

Yesterday, I ran a video clip of Desmond Tutu discussing Leadership. In the clip the Nobel Prize winner draws our attention to the importance of sacrifice. The problem with sacrifice is not whether you make it but how you feel about it and how you present it

Leaders should keep in mind that we don’t need their sacrifices if their going to present themselves as a downtrodden slave, dragging their angst across the board room floor. We certainly don’t need their sacrifice if they are presenting themselves as a Martyr, expecting us to genuflect in their general direction every day or so.

Neither slavery or martyrdom have a place in leadership. If you’re going to flaunt your servant leadership and package it in guilt, self righteousness, and self reflection maybe you’re not as much of a servant as you think. Maybe, you’re using servitude and the presentation of sacrifice as an unconscious little tool to get your way–service can in fact be Machiavellian. And if you intend to cash in on your service for others it maybe no service at all. Certainly, not in the sense that Desmond Tutu believes to be.

The question now is whether it’s appropriate to receive rewards for servitude. I am reminded of a day long ago when I was sitting in Rabbi Learner’s study in Brooklyn taking Bar Mitzvah lessons and he was expounding on the importance of the “Mitzvah”–the virtue of carrying out an act of human kindness. While he was talking about the philosophy of charity, kindness, and in Tutu’s word, sacrifice, I even at this young age began to think a bit about the pay-off.

I asked him and I remember this vividly (at my age this is no small trick), “Rabbi, there I am on Pennsylvania Avenue and New Lots, the busiest corner in east NY, it’s pouring, and I help an old blind lady cross the street and I stop traffic and am endangering myself in front off the new Pennsylvania Avenue bus and I am in a rush to get to school–and I get her to the other side. When I get to the other side Victor, who has the corner candy store, slaps me on the back and tells me how well I’ve done, the cop gives me a thumbs up, and two passerbyers actually applauded me. It seems like my Mitzvah got me a pay day—does that mean it’s not a Mitzvah, does that mean I didn’t sacrifice?”

Rabbi Learner looked at me, “Did she safely make it to the other side of the street?”

“Sure.” I said.

“Than everything else is gravy”

So much for contradictions.

You can lead using sacrifice as Tutu presents it and if once and while, in joy and admiration, people applaud you, enjoy it. Martyrdom isn’t becoming.



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