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October 14, 2015 | 1st Cheshvan 5776

Follow me!

Galilee Diary #216
January 16, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

[Samuel said,] “The day will come when you will cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the Lord will not answer you on that day.” But the people would not listen to Samuel’s warning. “No,” they said. “We must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations: Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles.”

-I Samuel 8:18-20

A sort of unofficial motto of the Israeli army is the exhortation “acharai!,” “Follow me!” It describes a philosophy of leadership which has always been a great source of pride to the army and to the whole nation. We see it as a striking contrast, for example, to the horrible stories of Egyptian soldiers in 1967 who were found chained to their tanks, who were truly proletarian cannon fodder for the elite rulers who pushed (not led) them into battle. By us it is different. We are all equals. Our army is egalitarian. Our officers don’t protect themselves at the expense of their men, but lead the way into whatever danger may await, serving as personal examples of deep commitment to a common goal. The leader cannot be cynical, or unsure of himself, or willing to take foolish risks – for he will bear the brunt of his own decisions, he will be the first into the fire. Moreover, his ability to lead through the cry of “follow me” is based on his absolute certainty that his men will be right there behind him.

This motto is a core element of our national self-image. We trust each other and our leaders; and our leaders care about us and have faith that we will follow them. We like to see the army model of classless solidarity, of a common fate, of leaders who have great authority and power yet who see themselves as no better than their followers – as characterizing our whole society. And since there is such an intimate connection between the army and society in general, patterns of behavior from the army do indeed cross over into civilian life. Most obviously, army social networks have tremendous impact on civilian life – from casual friendship to career advancement to politics. But perhaps more importantly, army leadership skills and styles are taken as models of good leadership, and it is taken for granted that people who were successful leaders in the army should be able to step directly into the highest echelons of leadership in business (generals become CEOs), education (principals), and politics (Yadin, Dayan, Rabin, Sharon, Barak, Mofaz, just to name a few of the most familiar).

However, more and more lately I find myself wondering if perhaps the ongoing state of frustrating polarization and inability to reach anything like consensus on a correct national course of action are due to our one-dimensional view of good leadership. There must surely be times when a group needs a strong leader, rushing ahead, certain of the way, behind whom we can fall in line, united in solidarity. For example, on the battlefield. But perhaps there are times when leadership consists in helping groups with dissonant visions find common ground, find the strength to listen carefully and creatively to the other, to stop and think instead of rushing forward, pulling in different directions. Our generals/prime ministers (and other ministers too) know how to say “follow me!” but not how to say “I’m not sure of the way, help me find it!” After all, indecision would be a sign of weakness and we cannot afford to demonstrate weakness. I would suggest that thoughtful indecision will make us a lot stronger than a decisiveness that generates internal division and the breakdown of national solidarity we are witnessing all around us at this time. When an officer says, “follow me!” and his soldiers – on the left and on the right – say, “no thanks!” – is the problem with the followers or the leader?

I know it sounds very “American” to say, in the middle of a war, that we should be paying more attention to “process.” But as has happened before in our history (e.g., the Hasmonean revolt, the Great Revolt against Rome), we are at war with ourselves, and until we find leaders to help us resolve that conflict, the greatest generals in the world will not be able to save us.

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