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Abraham as a Courageous Follower

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 "D'var Torah, Ya Verah, Abraham as a Courageous Follower"

                   Today’s parsha, Va Yerah, features several fascinating events and reveals many positive characteristics of Abraham, our father. He is kind and generous, immediately opening his home to strangers and offering them food. He is compassionate, advocating on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah whom he did not know and whose fate had no obvious connection to Abraham’s. And he is courageous and rooted in principle; indeed he has the audacity to argue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
          To apply modern terminology to our biblical story, Abraham was, perhaps, the first courageous follower in history. A courageous follower is someone who has the courage to give honest feedback to a leader, someone who is driven by principle and has the courage to question or even challenge a leader. A courageous follower orbits around principle and not around ego and will dare to challenge people with great power based on the strength of their convictions. In the case of Abraham and God, there is clearly an unequal power equation in the relationship. On one side is God, variously described as Master of the Universe, Holy of Holies, Creator of all flesh. And on the other side, we have Abraham, a mere human being who describes himself as “but dust and ashes’—“Anochi afar va-afer.” Perhaps you remember the very funny Bill Cosby comic routine where Noah is called by the Lord…”Noah, this is the Lord;” and Noah incredulously responds, “Yea right!”
          In my work in the federal judiciary, I am often asked the question, “How do I negotiate with a federal judge?” The subtext of the question is how do I negotiate with a person who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a lifetime appointment, a guarantee of tenure enjoyed by only federal judges and university professors (once described by Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffmann as “sovereign states”)? I am tempted to answer, “very carefully,” as I also have the occasional pleasure of negotiating with judges. 
          In trying to come up with better answers to this question it never really occurred to me until I reviewed today’s parsha that we can all take a lesson from Abraham. Let’s go back for a moment and review the conversation between God and Abraham.
          IN Chapter 18, God informs Abraham that the outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, their sin is so grave, that “I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached me; if not I will take note.”
Abraham, sensing the implied threat in God’s words, focuses the discussion. He does not simply say, “It’s a great idea to destroy Soddom and Gomorah,” as many are programmed to do in our culture. Instead Abraham challenges God by saying, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be 50 innocent within the city? Will you then wipe the place out and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?
          As the Eitz Chaim notes at this juncture, Abraham’s challenge to God is rooted in the audacious claim that even God is subject to the moral standards decreed for human beings. If people are to follow in God’s way, God must also be moral. God must be just.
          It’s amazing that Abraham can summon up the courage and demand that God be true to His own principles. But that is one of the most powerful ways to exert influence. It was that source of courage that animated Dr. Martin Luther King in trying to persuade American political leaders, who had more positional power than he did, to end segregation in America. He did not threaten to burn down buildings or to foment riots. He demanded that American leaders live up to the principles of our Constitution and Bill of Rights; “WE hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” He said that African-Americans had been trying to redeem a promissory note that had been denied to them for much too long a time. He was holding leaders accountable for their lack of commitment to their own principles, just as Abraham was holding God accountable.
          As mentioned earlier, I would use the term “courageous follower” to describe Abraham. I first came across this concept in a fascinating book entitled, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up, to and For Our Leaders, by Ira Chaleff. Chaleff points out that if you search for books or articles on the concept of “leadership” you will find thousands, perhaps millions of ‘hits.” (Indeed, I concluded it had gone too far last year when I received a book in the mail titled, “The Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus!) But if you look for resources on “followership, you find hardly anything. IN the preface to his book, Chaleff makes the following comments:
…I have been absorbed with the subject of followership
most of my life, since becoming aware as a child of the
systematic destruction of six million European Jews by
the Nazis during WWII. In my heart, like so many others,
I held the German people responsible, not just their
leader Adolph Hitler. When I was seven or eight I made
up games in which I rescued as many people as I could
from the German death camps. It was never enough.
          How could a whole country follow a vicious leader to
the logical conclusions of his psychosis?” The mass 
support for a psychotic leader may have well created the
contemptuous association my generation has with the
term “follower.”
          Only later did I learn that one of the basic principles
of Nazi ideology was the “Feuhrerpinzip”—the Leader
Principle—“One people, one Reich, one leader,” which
portrayed Hitler as the ultimate source of power and
justice. In the “Feuerstat”—the Leader State—the
“Feuertreu”—those loyal to the leader under any
circumstance—were the noblest of human beings.
Questioning the leader was raised to a crime of the
highest order.
          I also learned of the “White Rose,” a painfully
small group that tried arousing their fellow Germans
against Nazi war crimes. They quoted the philosopher
Johann Gottleib Fiche:” Thou shalt act as if on thee and
thy deed depended the fate of all Germany and thou
alone must answer for it. “ But this principle of
accountable followership obviously failed horribly.
It was not woven into the fabric of culture.
          And I wonder if the principle of courageous followership is woven into the fabric of our own culture? We all know it’s not easy to challenge a leader. Power is seductive, as Henry Kissinger once said it is the “greatest aphrodisiac,” and former Senator J. William Fulbright wrote an important book titled, The Arrogance of Power. Some people who have the good fortune to achieve close proximity to a powerful leader lose their focus and become intoxicated with the thrill of power. They become sycophants, a word used to describe Richard Nixon’s aids during the dark days of Watergate. Indeed, business studies have shown that ingratiators gain an edge over other employees in performance evaluations. But when followers simply try to please leaders, a shift in the leader’s behavior can emerge. Instead of viewing power as something to be used in the service of a noble mission, the leader treats it as a tool to further personal interests. 
Early in my career in government, my boss and six of his direct reports (a kinder gentler term than subordinates) attended a meeting with a sister government agency. At his meeting, my boss was acting inappropriately and non-constructively. Immediately after the meeting, he pulled the six of us into a small office and said, “Was I acting obnoxiously in that meeting?” He went around the room, and everyone said NO…until he came to me. I spoke from my heart and said, “Yes, you were acting obnoxiously in that meeting.” And then he did something very interesting: he turned back to the other five and asked, “Was I really?” And just as quickly, all shook their heads and said, Oh, no, you were just fine.” So there I was hanging out to dry.
          Psychologist Irving Janis has warned us against the tendency of “groupthink”—the tendency of a group to form an opinion early on and to become convinced that that opinion is the absolute truth. The group embraces the opinion as the truth and develops an inappropriate amount of optimism in their position. I would add that the tendency toward groupthink is particularly strong when a powerful leader initiates or strongly supports the group’s preferred position.
          Consider the case of John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in the early 1960’s. Kennedy came to his advisers with the notion of invading Cuba (or as he said “Cuber”) suggesting that the people in that enslaved nation were just dying to be liberated and throw Castro out of power. The President’s advisers have him a quick and emphatic thumbs up to the idea. One person tried to dissent, Senator Fulbright; however, he was basically laughed out of the room, because the group had made up its mind. As we know, the Bay of Pigs was a disaster, and Kennedy actually took the blame. Indeed he went on national television and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan. I failed; blame me.” His popularity shot way up after that speech, because people want honesty from leaders. Followers do not expect perfection from their leaders, but they do demand honesty.
          The next time Kennedy faced a crisis was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and on this occasion he totally changed the dynamics of decision-making. He instructed his staff to express their opinions freely and to challenge their own bosses and to challenge the president. We are in an international crisis, he said, and protocol goes out the window. This strategy worked, and he got the vigorous debate he wanted. He chose to go with the option of the blockade, and we were saved from a nuclear confrontionation with he Soviets.
          Alfred Sloan, the former chairman of General Motors once said at the close of an executive meeting: “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement with the decision here. I propose we postpone further discussion until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is all about.”
          Sherron Watkins tried to warn Ken Lay about the growing problems at Enron Corporation. She wrote an anonymous memo to CEO Ken Lay, and on August 22, 2001 she had a face-to-face meeting with him when she handed him a 7-page memo outlining her concerns about Enron. Mr. Lay ignored the Watkins memo and in September told Enron employees “our financial liquidity liquidity has never been stronger. In December 2001, Enron filed for Chapter 11.
In reflecting on her experience as a whistleblower—for which she was named the Time Magazine Person on the year in 2002—Watkins had this to say about the experience (and about leadership):
..."What I really failed to grasp was the seriousness of the emperor has no clothes phenomenon. I thought leaders were made in moments of crisis, and I naively thought that I would be handing Ken Lay his leadership moment. I honestly thought people would step up. But I said he was naked, and when he turned to the ministers around him, they said they were sure he was clothed."
Leaders have blind spots, and courageous followers can help leaders by identifying the resulting potential calamities and protect leaders from their own worse instincts. In the words of Frederick Seward, the son of William Seward who was Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War, “Presidents and Kings are not apt to see flaws in their own arguments.”
It is the exceptional leader who actually invites feedback and even criticism from his or her followers. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill sent his initial thoughts on policy to senior staff with the following wish:
The First Lord submits these notes to his naval
Colleagues for consideration, for criticism and
corrections, and hopes to receive proposals for action in the sense desired.
It is more likely that a leader will take the approach of Samuel Goldwyn who once told a bewildered staff member, “I want you to tell me exactly what’s wrong with me and with MGM even if it means losing your job.”
Collin Powell tried to give Mr. George W. Bush honest and courageous advice about his plans to invade Iraq. As recounted by Bob Woodward in his book, Plan of Attack, Powell attempted to counteract the advice that was being given to President Bush by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. He cautioned Bush in the following way, “Don’t let yourself get pushed into anything until you are ready for it or until you rethink there’s a real reason for it. This is not as easy as it is being presented, and take your time on this one. Don’t let anybody push you into it.” Later, as the war plans were advancing, Powell demanded some private time with the President, as he learned that Cheney and Rumsfeld had had private dinners with him. He ended up with a private audience with the President in the residence followed by dinner in the family dining room and continuing in the president’s office in the residence. The reluctant warrior continued his appeal:
          “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million
  People. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and
  Problems. (Privately Powell called this the Pottery Barn
  rule: You break it, you own it.)
  It’s going to suck the oxygen out of everything. This will
  become the first term. Iraq has a history that is quite
  comlpex. The Iraqis never had a democracy. So you
  need to understand that this is not going to be a walk in the woods.
  It’s nice to say we can do it unilaterally, except you can’t.
  You can still make a pitch for a coalition or UN action.
          According to Woodward, the President listened, asked some questions, but did not push back that much. Perhaps he should have given more weight to Powell’s entreaties; perhaps we could have avoided the fiasco that is now upon us. But Powell was speaking from his heart and as a courageous follower, as he never really broke publicly with the President and even went to the UN to make the case for invasion.
And so we return to Abraham. Avraham aveenu did not simply endorse God’s harsh plans for Soddom and Gomorrah. As the first courageous follower in our history, he pushed back. He challenged God, not in an obnoxious way, but with humility. He presented himself as “but dust and ashes;” but at the same time reminded God of God’s own principles and the need to stay true to them. And while the torah does not say so directly, there is reason to believe that God was not angered by Abraham’s challenge. Perhaps He actually delighted in the audacity and strength of his own creation to have the courage to stand up for principle.
Shabbat Shalom





Michael Eric Siegel, Ph.D

September 2006

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