Chasing windmills

"Good leadership doesn't necessarily bring about good results," says HU professor David Dery.

prof david dery face 88 (photo credit: )
prof david dery face 88
(photo credit: )
Hebrew University political science professor David Dery has a pet peeve: the societal tendency to judge our leaders on the basis of their performance, rather than on the purity of their hearts. Sounds naive? Indeed, Dery, who also heads the Delta Leadershift consultancy firm in Tel Aviv, is somewhat of a windmill-chaser. Like the character of Don Quixote - a literary device he uses in his teachings at the School of Educational Leadership at Jerusalem's Mandel Institute to "alter perceptions" of the concept of leadership - Dery, at 58, still believes in the pursuit of justice and truth. He even believes that "each of us has it in ourself to be a leader." Confusing power or popularity with leadership, he says, is one cause of our cultural predicament. Another is expecting short-term gratification in the form of results. Though his thoughts on the subject initially make the pensive, soft-spoken educator sound more like a moral theorist or a philosopher than a political scientist, the purpose of his curriculum, he says, is concrete: to pave the way for more conscience-driven members of society to enter the political arena without fear of "drowning in the swamp" of the Knesset. How to achieve this is another story. But given Dery's view that all political policies are "processes that take a long time to unfold," he undoubtedly has more patience than many of the rest of us, who are facing the imminent election with confusion at best, and a sense of catastrophe at worst. On this, too, Dery has an unconventional take, which he discusses passionately and humorously over lunch at a sea-side Tel Aviv restaurant. What is a leader? The question isn't "what" a leader is, but rather "when." When Rabbi Arieh Levine (the rabbi of the underground prisoners during the British Mandate) was asked whether he was among the righteous (lamed-vav tzadikim), he answered: 'I hope I am sometimes.' This applies to leadership as well. Sometimes a person - a politician, for example - is a leader and sometimes he isn't. What distinguishes such a person from the rest of us? Each of us has it in ourself to be a leader - someone not satisfied with the status quo. Someone who asks himself how he can alter what already exists. Without such questioning, nothing new would ever be created. Electricity, for example. You're saying that inventors are leaders? Yes. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who innovates anything can be called a leader. Is this something that can be taught or is it inherent? That's a tough question over which there has been much academic debate. The school of thought I espouse is that you can't teach leadership, but you can learn it. What about a child who becomes the "leader of the pack" in the classroom? He's not necessarily innovative, yet the other kids follow him. Here you're talking about popularity. Is a popular kid a leader? Perhaps; perhaps not. The question is: What is the quality of his control over the other kids? If he's encouraging them to be mean to other classmates, I wouldn't call him a leader. It's the values that count. In the absence of values, someone may be able to exert supremacy. This is not the same as leadership. No one would argue that Hitler didn't have followers. But his command and influence over them was pernicious, according to my values. What about Arafat? In my value system, he would probably be in the negative category - exerting hegemony to perpetuate his own power. You say that "according to your values," Hitler and Arafat were negative rulers. Are there no absolute values? Many factors enter into determining what constitutes values. Take Arik Sharon and the Sabra and Shatila affair. Now, I didn't happen to think it was a good thing. Someone else might argue that it saved the lives of many Israeli soldiers. What I'm trying to say is that agreeing or disagreeing with someone's policies or judgement isn't the criterion for determining whether he's a leader. Can someone be what you would consider a 'good' leader - innovative, possesses positive values - yet driven by something less than pure, such as power or money? You're asking if the results of someone's actions determine whether or not he's leader. The term mivhan hatotza'a (putting something or someone to the result-test) has become a politicians' catch-phrase in this country - and I disapprove of it. Putting someone to the "result-test" is both logically and morally unsound. As soon as a person - in this case a politician - is judged by his results, he is liable to do bad things in order to achieve those results. Furthermore, it is very difficult to measure results or to attribute them to a single person, policy or action. Not everything that's important can be measured. Nor can every outcome be traced precisely. Look, you can see a car crash into a tree, and say that it was the result of bad driving. But if that driver crashed into the tree because he swerved in order to avoid hitting a baby carriage, then you might say that the crash was the result of good driving. In the realm of politics it's no different. You can't determine what was behind a result when you don't know what else is involved. Former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu was hailed by some as the savior of the economy, and railed by others as its destroyer. Are you saying that neither side can have an opinion? That's an excellent example of why the result-test is so flawed. Economic policies, like all others, are processes that take a long time to unfold. Take the withdrawal from Lebanon, or disengagement. Each can appear to be bad or good at a given time, but we will only begin to see where each led many years later. Over time, many of us change our views of whether an event was bad or good. Still, historians have serious debates over past events and how they subsequently unfolded. In other words, the process-test is no more reliable than the result-test. Nothing is absolute. Isn't this a form of philosophical fatalism? You're basically saying that all one can do is sit back and observe the process. Not at all. Stoic philosopher Epictatus made a critical distinction between that over which I have control and that is beyond my control. Wherever I have control, I have to apply reason, values and judgement. But there is a whole realm over which I have no control. In a democracy, one of things over which you supposedly have control is who will head your government. You have to vote, even when it is said that there is no leadership. Complaints of a lack of leadership are based on the result-test. Whenever the "result" - the situation in the country - is bad, everybody says, "There's no leadership." But good leadership doesn't necessarily bring about good results. And good results are not necessarily due to this or that person at the helm. As for voting, I give my ballot to integrity and good faith - based on the values-test, not the result-test. During WWII, when Churchill visited England's bombed cities five years before victory over the Nazis, he was greeted with elation, not resentment. This indicates that he had passed the faith-test, not the result-test, since at the time, the results were very grim. Though he had promised, "We will prevail," he also promised "blood, sweat and tears." Lincoln said, "I am not always bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not always bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have." In the Bible, Moses' father-in-law, tells him: "...Thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens." [Exodus:18:21] There are certain politicians in this country who have the reputation for fitting that bill - who pass the values-test. Benny Begin, for example. And Uzi Landau. The one left politics; the other is considered "unelectable." How, then, can "men of truth" ever actually become our leaders? Would you have recommended to Benny Begin that forfeit his integrity to win an election? To betray his own truth? No. Remaining true to oneself often involves paying a steep price. This is also a measure of leadership. Achieving success is not. According to your definition, there might be leaders all over the place who are completely anonymous - not running the country, with no followers. I do not hold with the school of thought according to which without followers there are no leaders. Again, it's an issue of long-term processes. What about the leader, for example, whose followers haven't been born yet? Vincent Van Gogh died a starving painter because his followers were born much later. When you vote in an election, are you seeking a leader or the candidate who represents policies you support? Did you know that surveys throughout the West have shown that the vast majority consider integrity to be the most important quality in a potential leader? Voters want to be able to trust campaign promises. If everybody is seeking integrity in a leader, why is there such a discrepancy among voters when it comes to selection? Part of my work in this field is to teach my students to look outside the box - to alter their perceptions about the whole subject. To get away from the result-test. In my workshops, I use a film produced by Stanford Prof essor Emeritus James March called "Passion and Discipline - Don Quixote's Lessons for Leadership." It emphasizes the point that knowing who you are - no matter how ridiculous it may seem to others - is a key leadership trait. To what end? I would like to see more people with values entering the political arena. I'm sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, of good, honest citizens who would consider politics their calling if they weren't afraid of getting eaten alive by thick-skinned cynics or drowning in the swamp. I am one such person. As a much younger man, I wanted to change the world. But I was afraid of that other world - of politics. So, as the saying goes, "Those who can't do, teach." Come on, don't tell me that as a citizen you don't make judgements based on the result-test. If your garbage weren't collected, you wouldn't vote for your mayor in the next municipal elections, right? If my garbage weren't collected because the mayor spent more of his budget on aid for the needy, I might very well vote for him. Conversely, if my garbage were collected by the Mafia, I wouldn't vote for him. I don't happen to think the two are mutually exclusive - that your choices are living with garbage or with an honest mayor. They can go together. Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism, said that channeling man's basest self-interest ends up benefiting the greatest number of people. Doesn't that go against the values you're talking about? I agree with Adam Smith that it's not out of the kindness of the baker's heart that he bakes good bread in order to sell it. But this is business. There are other realms in which the rules of the market don't apply. Where what counts is remaining true to oneself. What interests me about Ark Sharon, for example, is what his inner aspirations are. What is someone is true to his inner aspirations, yet bends them externally in order to get where he wants to go? I'll answer that with a quote from the venerable Rabbi Zusia as though it were directed at you: "Ruthie, when you get to heaven, you won't be asked why you weren't Hillary Clinton. You'll be asked why you weren't Ruthie."