Erica Brown

When it’s time to step down

There is a time when leaders must step down, when they age out of being responsive to the needs of their constituents, or it’s time to give someone else a try.

August 10, 2017 16:04

I woke up to a large, striking image on the cover of the newspaper. It was the back of an elderly gentleman, tipping a bowler hat slightly above his grey hair to some unseen crowd. There was dignity in the pose and a touch of sadness in the black, white and greys of the photo. Who was this man? When I read the caption, it all made sense.

It was a photo of Prince Philip on the day of his culminating public event. At 96, he was fulfilling his last public duties. The mystique of British royalty no doubt nabbed him centre space in the newspapers here, but it was the column about him that was most stirring. Who knew that he had 22,219 solo appearances, given 5,496 speeches and written 14 books? He has watched the world change dramatically, and his family change dramatically as well. A life of public service — even with all its material excesses — is always one that we honour. It is hard to serve for decades, some would say impossible.

The picture also drew me to two biblical texts. Isaiah has a moment when he eavesdrops on a conversation between God and the ministering angels. They were bemoaning the absence of leadership — “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” — when Isaiah stepped in to volunteer: “Here I am. Send me” (6:8).

Leadership demands those moments of profound initiative, when we volunteer for tasks that no one else wants and do so proudly. Judaism would not have survived but for leaders who stepped up.

But there is also a time when leaders must step down, when they age out of being responsive to the needs of their constituents, or it’s time to give someone else a try. Every time one leader steps down, an emerging generation of leaders will soon take his or her place.

This transition takes time, and it’s not always handled well. One of the greatest hardships for organisations generally and Jewish organisations specifically is the transition of leaders, the succession point.

The Bible rarely lets go of a leader before another is in place. Today, however, we are not always as good about creating and securing a leadership pipeline.

In another biblical story, one of the greatest succession narratives in Western civilization, Elijah is told to pick a successor. He chooses a young man ploughing the family fields. Elijah throws his cloak on the lad, who kisses his parents goodbye and steps into the unknown. The mantle of leadership has been placed upon him before he even knows what it means.

The two — mentor and novitiate — travel through the Land of Israel doing what prophets do. When Elijah ages, he tries to break from his apprentice to bid farewell to his people, city by city. Elisha insists on following him and drinking in any last-minute wisdom. They cross the Jordan together. Elisha begs for double Elijah’s spirit to take on the weighty role he will soon inherit. Elijah tells him that this can be his only if he sees the prophet being taken away: “When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?’ ‘Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,’ Elisha replied. ‘You have asked a difficult thing,’ Elijah said, ‘yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours — otherwise, it will not’” (II Kings 2:9-10).

In essence, what’s necessary for leadership is to have the vision to see what’s in front of you clearly and to have the bravery to step into that future and make it happen. Suddenly, everything shifts tectonically for the one leaving and the one left behind.

“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” The mantle that brought Elisha to leadership is now dropped on his shoulders, and he must put it on, even if it’s a bit too big at first. “Elisha saw this and cried out, ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’ And Elisha saw him no more…Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak…”(II Kings 2:11-13).

Who will wear the next mantle of leadership in your organisation or in your family? Maybe it’s time to step up. Here I am. Send me.

Dr Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.

August 10, 2017 16:04

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