Leadership is not a position; it's an activity. Our tradition calls us to exercise leadership even and especially when it's difficult or uncomfortable. Stories both personal and traditional help illustrate this them.
Exercising Leadership: Putting Compassion Ahead of Convenience
I don’t know what it’s like on Midwestern campuses, but down in Virginia, there was a fair amount of public preaching on grounds. As many of you know, I attended the University of Virginia, and from time to time, our school was a target of vociferous protests, organized by religious extremists who condemned the entire system of higher education. They’d appear on grounds once or twice a year, a half-dozen of them or so, with signs denouncing the academy as the devil’s playground.
Against the advice of my Hillel president, I once engaged one of these protestors in conversation. The religious studies major in me just couldn’t resist. I learned that he believed that the bible, as God’s word, is the only reliable authority for how we should behave. Or to put it another way, every book aside from the bible is, by definition, satanic. So, devotion to the study of such books is traffic in devilry and must be opposed.
Armed with this knowledge, I felt immune to their protests. I knew that their views didn’t hold up, and consequently their condemnation rolled off of me like water.
So the next time they returned, I decided to act. There was a week-long period during my senior year when a man known only as “Donny” stationed himself in the amphitheater and railed against all aspects of university life. On the day I stopped to listen, he was preaching that everyone present was going to hell, especially the so-called “queers” and “queer-supporters.” The crowd was hostile to him, but he was still getting the attention he desired. It occurred to me that the only way to thwart his hateful message would be to deny him an audience.
An older gentleman named [Harry] interrupted the protester and spoke out against hate speech, and I stepped forward to support him. I’ll share what happened next by quoting from a letter I wrote home that afternoon:
While I was waiting for my turn [to speak], I heard a few calls for encouragement, including from [my friend Sarah]. I beckoned to her to come join me - I don’t know why. She came, and my strength was bolstered.
[Harry] finished speaking, and arm-in-arm with [Sarah], I addressed the crowd:
“My friends! Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel while marching with Martin Luther King Jr. was asked ‘Why aren’t you in the synagogue praying?’ He said, ‘I am praying with my feet.’ I’m asking you now to do the same. Let this man [Harry] have the last word. He [Donny] isn’t going to convince you, and you aren’t going to convince him. So I’m asking you - the only way we can make a statement now as a community is to get up and walk away. Send emails, write to the paper - but use your voice away from here. This is how we can stand up and walk away from this message. I ask you to pray with your feet now, and get up and leave.”
[My letter goes on:]
Before I was even finished speaking, people were leaving. I started heading out through a smattering of applause, and [Sarah] gave me a hug. I was rather in a daze, not entirely sure what had just happened. I walked away and shook a couple people’s hands - a few people I knew encouraged me. One student said, “That's the smartest thing I've heard said out there all day.”
As I was walking away, my heart was fluttering and my hands were shaking (and were until five minutes ago). At the same time, though, I felt a tremendous thrill shooting through me. This is what it means to speak out for good.
This incident of eleven-and-a-half years ago remains among my proudest. In that moment, I was able to step forward and make a difference. Not because I was someone with particular station or influence but rather because I saw and seized upon an opportunity to exercise leadership.
Too often we think of leadership as a position. We consider judges, principals, team captains, and so on to be “leaders” because they have formal positions of influence. But this view unnecessarily restricts leadership to these so-called “leaders.” My story illustrates that leadership is not a position; it’s an activity. And like many other activities, it can be practiced and improved.
Leadership authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner put it this way:
Leadership can happen anywhere, at any time. … It can happen in the public, private, or social sector. It can happen in any function. It can happen at home, at school, or in the community. … Leadership is not a gene, and it’s not an inheritance. [It] is an identifiable set of skills and abilities that are available to all of us.
In other words, every one of us has the opportunity to exercise leadership on a daily basis regardless of our official roles. And Jewish tradition urges us to take those opportunities whenever they arise.
There are countless examples in Jewish history of people without formal authority exercising leadership in profound and significant ways. It is appropriate this week to focus on one in particular: the famous 2nd-century Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef.
We are instructed in this week’s Torah portion to count fifty days from Passover until Shavuot (Lev. 23:15-20), a practice that came to be known as Counting the Omer. These fifty days came to be observed as a period of mourning in memory of the sudden death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students, who died between Passover and the 33rd day of the Omer (BT Yevamot 62b). This 33rd day is a holiday called Lag B’omer (which means simply the 33rd day of the Omer) and is often celebrated with bonfires and picnics and even weddings.
Now, who was this Akiva that he should have thousands of students to begin with? He was a sage regarded for his creativity in interpreting Torah. His readings often required a daring imagination, an ability to conceive of the text inside-out, drawing meaning even from the shape of the ink on the parchment. These out-of-the-box lessons inspired a whole new approach to the study of our sacred texts. A story is even told of Moses himself transported through time to sit in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom wherein Moses marvels uncomprehendingly at the ingenuity of this remarkable sage (BT Menachot 29b). Akiva was in his day and has remained for two thousand years a leading teacher of Torah in Jewish tradition.
But he didn’t start out that way. Whereas most sages of his era were trained from childhood, Akiva began his study of Torah at age 40. Indeed, before then he couldn’t even read. His parents had converted to Judaism, and in that time, Akiva’s status as the child of converts would have earned him skepticism at best and suspicion at worst just for being who he was. Akiva was of modest means, a shepherd for the wealthiest man in the land of Israel. Nothing about his background would suggest that he would someday attract 24,000 pairs of students to hang on his every word.
Through his own diligence and acumen, Akiva became recognized by all his peers as an exemplary scholar. He established and oversaw his own academy at B’nai B’rak and attained the full dignity of a renowned rabbi. Though he came to hold a position of formal authority, he did so by exercising leadership in his own way, putting forward his unorthodox views of Torah in a world where they—and he—were very unlikely to be welcomed.
In honor of Rabbi Akiva’s leadership, I’d like to do something a bit unorthodox right now. In a moment, I’m going to ask you to turn to a neighbor and share a brief story of a time when you exercised leadership. Think of a moment when you made a difference in your own life or someone else’s regardless of your official position. We’ll have about two minutes to share, so make sure you keep it short, and give both people a chance to speak.
The stories we have shared have no doubt spanned a range of intensity. They may have occurred at home or at work, in childhood or adulthood, in front of one person or an entire crowd.
I’d also wager that most of them entailed some risk. The easiest thing to do in any situation is to follow. Exercising leadership is almost always the more difficult task, and it can often get us in trouble. As leadership teachers Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky write:
Every day you must decide whether to put your contribution out there or keep it to yourself to avoid upsetting anyone and get through another day. You are right to be cautious. Prudence is a virtue. You disturb people when you take unpopular initiatives in your community … or ask friends and relatives to face up to tough realities. You risk people’s ire and make yourself vulnerable. 
The ancient prophets of our tradition knew this as well. Amos saw his neighbors lying and stealing and concluded, “Assuredly, at such an evil time, the prudent one keeps silent” (5:13). But as we know, Amos set aside prudence and put compassion ahead of convenience. And so he preached:
For I have noted how many are your crimes,
And how countless your sins--
You enemies of the righteous,
You takers of bribes,
You who subvert in the gate
The cause of the needy!
Seek good and not evil,
That you may live …
And establish justice in the gate (5:12, 14-15).
I can’t imagine Amos got invited to a lot of parties. Yet there he was, a Judean sheepbreeder far from home in the northern districts of Israel, agitating for justice when simple silence would have been so much easier. Sure, he had the advantage of prophetic vision, but he and his prophetic contemporaries nevertheless teach us that we can heed the call to exercise leadership in our own time and place.
None of us is a prophet, and opportunities to disperse angry crowds are few and far between. But when the prophetic voice does rumble inside us, and when the chance to make lasting impact on a community presents itself, our tradition urges us to exercise leadership. And in the meantime, for all the days in between, we continually challenge ourselves to make a difference where we can to the extent that we can reach.
As I mentioned, these religious extremist protestors came to UVA once or twice a year. So I’ll conclude with one last story of leadership—quieter this time, and shared with permission—that involves them.
My wife, Jessica, was passing out hamentashen one afternoon near that same amphitheater where the so-called “Donny” was preaching his hateful invective. On a break from denouncing the academy, one of the protestors stopped by her booth.
“Would you like a cookie?” Jessica asked cheerfully, undeterred by the inflammatory sign he was holding.
“Sure,” he said, choosing one. And as he chewed, he asked, “What’s the occasion?”
Jessica replied, “These are Jewish cookies for holiday of Purim.”
The protester gave her a strained look but said nothing. He walked away, still chewing. About a half-hour later, he returned and told Jessica briefly and plainly: “The cookie was good. But Jesus is still the Lord.”
From that day to this, in our home we’ve considered this a beautiful exchange, a model of finding the humanity in those with whom we most vigorously disagree. For the exercise of leadership can be truly successful only when we honor those whom we seek to lead, only when we treat one another with respect. As we read in last week’s Torah portion at the center of the Holiness Code: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). And as Rabbi Akiva himself taught us, this is “the greatest principle of the Torah” (Sifra Kedoshim, parasha 2, perek 4:12).
 The Leadership Challenge (2007), p. 8-9, 23.
 Leadership on the Line (2002), p. 2-3.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”