The Inevitability of Leadership Sin
Leaders make mistakes; they sin. This is an inevitable (although not excusable) reality of leadership. Leadership greatness is not defined by the absence of error or sin, it is defined by the way Leaders manage their errors. I am not talking about leaders’ personal lives: in that their sinning is no different from anyone else’s. It is not inevitable that a Governor should engage in prostitution. I am referring to the inevitability of errors of judgment in the day-to-day business of leading organizations and nations.
The Parsha lists a number of Korbanot (sacrifices) to be brought as a consequence of an unintentional sin. Cases are given for a Kohein Gadol (High Priest) who sins, a national sin, the sin of a Nasi (Prince of a Tribe) and an individual. In all cases but one, the case is introduced with “if an individual (or high priest, or the nation etc) should sin….” The exception is the Nasi about which it says (4:22)Asher Nasi yechetah - “When a Nasi sins”. For a leader it is when he sins, not if he sins. The Ramban and the Rashbam read nothing specific into this different usage of language for the Nasi, but theSeforno and Rashi do.
The Seforno comments on the fact that it is common for leaders to sin because of the sense of complacency, power, and ultimately arrogance and invincibility that they begin to feel. It is possible however that leadership error and sin is not only a consequence of the negative midot (character traits) that they sometimes develop in office, but an inevitable consequence of their jobs. “There is no man that does good and sinneth not”: it is easy to remain free from sin when a person is not engaged in doing good. However, purity that results from disengagement is not the purity the Torah seeks from us. It is when we engage in the world in a quest to do good, that we run greater risks of sin. That is not a reason to shy away from engagement and doing good, it is merely a reason to monitor our actions while we engage and quickly correct them when we err. This is why, as Chazal tell us, Teshuva (repentance) was created before the world. G-d built the world as a place in which man can engage to do chessed (kindness), but in the engagement of building the world and doing kindness, sin would inevitably result: Teshuva is the antidote that G-d prepared even before He created the opportunity for sin.
Leadership Accountability for Sin
Rashi’s angle is a little different from that of the Seforno. Rashi sees in the word “Asher” (when) the word “Ashrei” (fortunate): Fortunate is the generation whose leaders recognize their (inevitable) mistakes, correct them and atone for them – how much more so do they show remorse for deliberate wrongdoing. Rashi sees the good fortune of a generation not in a leader who does not sin, that would be a leader who does not do good either. Rashi sees a generation’s good fortune manifested in the way their leaders handle their sins when they become aware of them. This is the very core of accountability. Shaul lost his kingdom because he tried to escape responsibility for his mistakes and to make himself out as a victim of circumstance. David, who did something possibly much more serious, retains his kingdom and grows his stature because he took responsibility and declares
“Chatati “ – I have sinned.
When something goes wrong in an organization, great leaders are quick to take responsibility just as they take credit for good results in the organization. Leaders create the environment in which both good and bad things happen. They should be given some of the credit for positive outcome and take part of the responsibility for the negative.
Accountability follows the regular Teshuva process: Viduy (verbal admission), Charata (remorse) and Kabbalah le’habbah (taking steps to avoid repetition in the future). Great leaders follow each of those steps:
- They articulate what has gone wrong and accept personal responsibility for it.
- They demonstrate deep and genuine remorse; they apologize and take corrective action.
- They outline the steps they have taken to prevent the same thing happening again in the future.
President Kennedy did that after The Bay of Pigs and turned a disaster early in his presidency into positioning himself as a great leader. Other presidents (in the USA and leaders elsewhere including Israel) subsequently, in an attempt to avoid accountability, have destroyed their own integrity and damaged their office and the nation. Asher Nasi yechetah: Fortunate is the nation whose leaders are accountable.