Consensus seekers are true leaders
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO — I admire Abba Eban, z”l, I do not agree with his view on governing by consensus. Eban wrote: “A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.”
I have the opposite opinion: a consensus means that everyone has put aside their personal reservations and interests in order to come to a conclusion that everyone can live with.
As a participant or observer on many different non-profit boards, I have often felt that close votes make bad policy. I often advise that votes on controversial and divisive issues be tabled until everyone has time to think and reflect and come back to make a decision that the overwhelming majority can live with.
Consensus does not often occur on its own. It needs to be built. In order to build a consensus one or two people in positions of leadership need to speak with others and encourage their agreement and “buy in.”
Moshe Rabbeinu understood the importance of building consensus. Even when he did not need agreement he went out of his way to solicit support. One example of his leadership skills is found in Parashat Shemot. After God appears to Moses in Midian and orders him to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites, the Torah reports: “Moses went back to his father-in-law Jether (Jethro) and said to him, ‘Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.’
And Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go in peace.'” (Ex. 4:18)
Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel, the “Grandfather of Slobodka” (1849-1927) wrote that some might find Moses seeking permission from his father-in-law to leave for his mission to be puzzling. After all, Moses was going at God’s bidding! Why did he need Jethro’s assent?
Rabbi Finkel was not puzzled by Moses’ actions, he praised them. Perhaps, he wrote, it was because Moses went out of his way to honor his father-in-law and other human beings that God found him worthy of leadership to begin with. (Iturei Torah, Shemot, p. 39)
There is nothing shameful or weak about compromising and seeking the agreement of others, especially of those whom might initially disagree with you. It is rather a sign of confidence, strength, and decency.
As I wrote above, I do not agree with Abba Eban that consensus is wallpaper for bad decisions. I agree, rather, with Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we commemorate next week, who said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego