Ancient Wisdom For Leading In a Modern Crisis

Right about now, I am pretty sure that the question you are not asking yourself is “What can I learn about leading in a crisis from a first-century rabbinic sage?” While certainly not surprising, I’d like to suggest that, in fact, there is much to be learned from that ancient rabbi, whether or not we have any connection to his faith, his world view, or his classical writings. The rabbi in question is Yohannan ben Zakkai (I will call him YBZ for short) who lived in the Land of Israel during the period of Roman occupation nearly two thousand years ago.

By the seventh decade of that new era, Roman soldiers had tightened their strangle-hold on Jerusalem. YBZ understood all too well that death and destruction would soon follow. But what was at stake was much more than the city and its buildings, or even its residents. YBZ, already a revered scholar and respected community leader, knew that, along with the city, Rome was poised to destroy the Holy Temple, the epicenter of Jewish life in the ancient world. To sack the Temple meant to destroy the entirety of the Jewish experience. The Temple was the place where the people worshiped God. Its cultic system of sacrifices, referenced in the Bible itself, was the means by which the people fulfilled their individual and communal obligations. At the Temple they repented their transgressions; it represented everything they knew to be true and right and normative.

With destruction pending, both the nation and YBZ faced their greatest crisis. Rather than wallow in the uncertainty of what was yet to come, YBZ took the unprecedented step of stealthily departing Jerusalem, sequestered in a coffin so as not to be recognized, and made his way to the Roman general Vespasian. There, he negotiated a radical plan, not to rebuild the Temple, which the Romans would never have allowed, but to establish an academic academy and supreme court in the small village of Yavne, safely distanced from the holy city. It was in Yavne that impassioned learning and pious living would continue, altering forever the post-destruction experience. YBZ was unwilling to let his community’s way of life crumble along with the Temple itself. He sought to maximize the opportunities inherent in the crisis at hand. He knew what few others in his day comprehended. Despite the importance of Jerusalem, responding to the crisis by continuing to do what had always been done was nothing short of a prescription for disaster.

The move to Yavne is a metaphor for all of us! During times of extreme crisis, we must not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by a failure of imagination. Rethinking how we do business, even if it requires a complete reconfiguration of everything we previously thought to be true, is the only way to survive the crisis. YBZ embodied the resilience and agility every crisis leader must master, whether a small business owner, a corporate executive or a nonprofit CEO.

Following the destruction of Jerusalem, the story is told that YBZ and a disciple were walking near the site of the Temple, then still smoldering. With a pathos that is yet palpable, YBZ’s student cried out, “Alas for us!” Everything we counted on to fulfill God’s will now lies destroyed. How will we ever pursue a path of righteousness again? What is to become of everything we held dear? YBZ’s response is telling. “Do not be distressed my son,” he said before explaining that in the aftermath of the cataclysmic fall of Jerusalem, there was an alternate path that lay ahead of them. “We have a form of atonement just like it (Temple sacrifices),” he assured his coreligionist. “And what is it? Acts of kindness, as it says (Hosea 6:6), ‘Loving kindness I desire, not sacrifice.’”

Despite its antiquity, there are three lessons that contemporary crisis leaders might want to extrapolate from YBZ’s response.

  1. Leaders must first understand the pain and distress, the fear and uncertainty of their followers. Like his colleague, YBZ was also mourning the loss of the Temple and everything it stood for. He knew all too well that what had been destroyed was much more than an imposing edifice. “Do not be distressed my son …” Before anything else, he recognized the need to connect on a human level, what some today would call emotional intelligence.
  2. But YBZ was impelled to move beyond his own fears and sadness. He knew that a leader in times of crisis must offer followers much more than commiseration or a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. For him, it was essential to have a plan that followers could wrap their arms around. As he did when he worked to relocate the center from Jerusalem to Yavne, YBZ helped others to envisage that new model, a model that would take them far beyond the current crisis. As the leader, he neither hesitated to move forward nor did he pretend that everything would remain the same. Instead he painted a picture of what life post-crisis would look like, and how it would work.
  3. Finally, YBZ does something that those who lead in crisis must always seek to do. Rather than hovering in the nether world of vacuous and unsubstantiated promises, he comes as close as he can to validating his new vision by offering a proof, or in this case, a proof text. He does not ask people to trust him simply based on his own self-assertions, what is sometimes referred to as “position power.” He substantiates his vision with evidence that is most likely to resonate with his followers, something to which they can relate, and which already has meaning for them. In this case, the words of the prophet Hosea extolling something even greater than the now destroyed sacrificial cult, serve that purpose. In doing so, YBZ asks not for blind loyalty. Rather, he draws upon the shared core values of his followers to authenticate his model of a new future.

So, while I well understand that Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai is far from a household name, we can, nevertheless, learn a great deal about leading in crisis by studying his pre-modern example. His legacy is one that can help all of us seeking to bring real leadership to these trying times. Compassion and optimism, clarity of purpose and tenacity are the watchwords of effective crisis leadership. By acknowledging the pain and uncertainty of the present, while refusing to succumb to fear, by instilling confidence and foresight in one’s followers and by linking a new vision to the underlying core values that give us meaning, a leader can bring her people to a new place; a place that over time will prove far more adaptable and resonant than ever imagined.

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