The most courageous thing a leader can do

A week ago I attended my first Bat Mitzvah (I grew up Catholic)It was a special weekend. The event was for a longtime family friend of my wife’s. While in Washington, DC, my wife and I lived in the same part of town. My wife babysat for the family for all six of the years we lived in DC. They developed a pretty special relationship.

The family attended our wedding three years ago. We wanted to repay the sentiment. It was important that we attended.

But what I wasn’t expecting was to leave the temple after the Bat Mitzvah service replaying the words of two brave, courageous and insightful 13-year old girls.

At the beginning of the service, the Rabbi spoke about the occasion’s meaning. At 13 years old, the two girls weren’t yet considered “adults” within the Jewish community, but they were now deemed “leaders.”

Leadership is a much taller order than simply being considered an adult, which we culturally, politically, and scientifically associate with age. But, what a wonderful opportunity for a young person. And a powerful statement in and of itself: seniority isn’t what defines a leader.

It takes something else, something I witnessed a little later in the service.

The time came for the first girl to make her speech. This is a personal reflection about their particular Torah reading and what it means to them today. What an experience for a young person. In the presence of their closest family and friends of all ages, they have the opportunity to offer their own unique contribution to their religion.

The young girl stood up and proclaimed she didn’t know. She didn’t know if the Torah was real or a bunch of fiction. She compared it to Aesops Fables. She confessed to still having more questions than answers. And the tough questions she was asking weren’t the result of inadequate preparation, they were because she was adequately prepared.

I thought about my own line of work. In science and health, there is no Truth (except if you count the fact that we will all die at some point). All we have is evidence to support a particular hypothesis. For some hypotheses, like tobacco causing cancer, we have a lot of evidence. Evidence is more muddy and contradictory in other areas, like nutrition science.

The presence of unknowns doesn’t, however, diminish our intense desire for definitive, absolute answers. We like absolutes. They are easy to wrap our heads around. So, we try to contort science into definitive answers to then make policy about it. Then, when it’s stated in policy, we don’t have to sit with uncertainty. We can then simply point to the policy and accept it as truth because smarter, more powerful people said it was.

We all know the bandwagon effect, or groupthink. It’s one of a handful of well-know cognitive biases. The probability one person will adopt a particular belief increases based on the number of other people who also hold the belief.

It takes guts to be different. It takes guts to ask questions and challenge conventional ways of thinking or beliefs. It takes guts to refrain from offering opinion first in favor of exploration and uncertainty. It takes guts to publicly state you don’t know. It takes guts to be vulnerable in front of your closest friends and family. And lastly, it takes huge amounts of guts and courage to know that knowing has no end, that learning is a lifelong pursuit, worthy of our support and admiration.

Those are powerful statements from a leader.

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