(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Robert Cialdini, a ground-breaking academic in the field of human behavior, says in his book Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion that social influence is one of the most powerful forces driving human behavior. We are a very powerful source of influence on the people around us, even if we often don’t realize it. We are consciously or subconsciously always looking to other people for guidance.
Cialdini writes about a very interesting experiment in which a student faking an epileptic seizure received help 85% of the time when there was only one bystander, but only 31% of the time when there were, in addition to the subject under observation, five bystanders present. In other words, if someone collapses in front of a single individual, then that individual springs to the rescue most of the time. But when there is a group of people at the scene, the natural instinct is to look around and see if and how others are reacting – and to take one’s cue from there.
Cialdini refers to another interesting study – morbid and frightening, but also very powerful – which demonstrates that if a suicide is reported in the press, the suicide rates for the city increase for three months (spiking in the first month, reducing slightly in the second and third, but still remaining much higher than the average). Human beings are social creatures and we look to those around us for direction.
Because of the power of social influence, we all are leaders. Leadership begins with the self, but doesn’t end there. We are called on to lead others through the impact of our social influence, which is so much more powerful than we can imagine. To get married is for husband and wife to accept their leadership roles for each other and then later for their children, who themselves should be raised to be leaders in the family.
Every parent is a leader within the family. Every child too.
And because we all influence each other, we have to take responsibility for our homes and our families. We have to set the tone in our home and lead by example.
Whatever a child grows up with, they will consider to be normal and natural, and whatever is absent from their home will come to be considered abnormal and unnatural. If a child grows up in a home in which people speak aggressively and unkindly, then that will become their norm; but if a child’s home environment is one in which people speak to each other kindly and respectfully, and without disparaging others – then that is what they will learn to do. The same goes for a child growing up in a home with kashrut and Shabbat.
What do we want our children to value? What kind of home do we want to see them build one day? The power of influence goes beyond family, of course. Just by being among a group of friends, and, for example, refusing to speak lashon hara – negatively about another person – is influencing those around us for the good.
Leadership extends to community and society.
The Torah philosophy of leadership finds particular expression in a few crucial mitzvot. The mitzva of learning Torah, for example, is defined by the Rambam (1135-1204) as “learning and teaching.” The mishna in Pirkei Avot says “establish many students.”
This, explains Rabbi Israel Lipschitz (1782-1860), is referring not only to the official rabbis and teachers of the community, but to each and every one of us. Obviously we have to teach with integrity and not profess knowledge and expertise we do not have – but, subject to such limitation, we have a responsibility to share the wisdom of Torah with as many people as possible.
There’s also the mitzva to love Hashem, which the Gemara (Yoma 86a) defines as “making the name of the Heaven beloved to all.” In other words, we have an obligation to inspire as many people as possible to love Hashem. The Gemara explains that this is achieved by speaking gently and kindly to people and showing respect for their dignity, as well as by conducting ourselves with integrity; when others see how those who subscribe to Torah values live their lives in such an elevated manner, then they want to be a part of it.
Then there is also the mitzva of kiddush Hashem – sanctifying Hashem’s name. It is a mitzva for every single one of us to promote Hashem’s reputation in the world. Of course, the most fundamental way to do this is to set an example – living an exemplary, Godly life can be a beacon to our family, our friends, our community and greater society.
We are all called upon to be leaders, starting with ourselves and then expanding to reach the people around us. If each one of us embrace this calling of leadership, together we can make the world into a better place for all.The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa.