Inspirational Leadership and Sustainable Values

Dov Seidman

What Krazy George understood is that human waves are not about exercising power over people. They are about generating power through people.

I often think of the great teachers who blessed my life and ignited in me a passion for learning. But if any of my high school teachers could see me now, they would surely be surprised. I graduated high school with two As: one in Phys Ed, the other in Auto Shop. I got a 970 on the SAT. I took it again and my score increased dramatically to 980.

It turned out that I had dyslexia. Somehow I talked my way into UCLA. I was accepted very late and because all the other classes were full, I found myself taking remedial English and philosophy. I fell in love with philosophy. With my professors’ encouragement, philosophy helped me overcome dyslexia. Unable to read hundreds of pages, philosophy rewarded me for the careful consideration of one idea and my disability transformed into a strength.

Philosophy is also at the heart of my company, LRN. Since long BE—Before Enron—we have been applying philosophy to the rough-and-tumble world of business. We teach millions of employees how to “do the right thing” and leaders to inspire principled performance in business. So my business is an extension of philosophy. I like to think of myself as a philosopher in a suit. Come to think of it, a Jewish philosopher in a suit.

In Judaism there is a deeper meaning to my son’s name, Lev Tov. You may know the story from Pirkei Avot in which Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his disciples, “What is the good path to which a person should cleave?” One student answered, “A good eye,” the second said, “A good friend,” the third said, “A good neighbor,” and the fourth replied, “The outcome of a deed.” Finally, his student Rabbi Elazar says, “Lev tov—a good heart,” to which Rabban Yochanan responded: “I prefer the words of Elazar, for his words include all of your words.” If you have lev tov, a good heart, the rest is commentary. Judaism is about shem tov, having a good name. But it is not enough to have a good name. He has to earn his good name.

As the CEO of an ethics company that operates in a world of unprecedented transparency, I know my son faces a difficult challenge. My son has to earn a good name in a world where everything he says and does on Facebook or Twitter will be easily and forever accessible by others. Wherever he goes, his name will arrive before he gets there. In this world, earning a good name is not so much about what we do, but rather about How we do it. How we behave. How we lead. How a rabbi or cantor or an educator engage their congregation, their students, or persons in need.

This idea of How is a Jewish idea. The Talmud testifies to that. For three years, it is said, there was a dispute between Beit Hillel, the followers of Rabbi Hillel, and Beit Shammai, the followers of Rabbi Shammai. Both argued that their ideas were in agreement with Halachah, Jewish law. Then came a bat kol, or heavenly voice, which said, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim Chayim.” “These and these”—meaning both of their words—“were the words of the living G-d.” However, the Talmud ruled that the law is in agreement with the house of Hillel.

Yet, if both got their words right, what entitled Beit Hillel to have the law fixed according to its rulings? The reason, the Talmud states, was that its rabbis were kindly and modest; they studied the rulings of Shammai as well as their own. They were even so humble that they mentioned Shammai’s teachings first.

It was not what Hillel said that inspired the Jewish tradition to view him as an exemplar of human conduct. Rather it is How he behaved and How he treated others. He was an inspirational leader. Now more than ever, people need inspirational leadership from you. What do I mean by inspirational leadership?

Inspired people are guided by their own beliefs, in pursuit of a vision they believe is worthy of their dedication and in fidelity to values they deem to be fundamental.

Take a leader who has changed the way I think about leadership. His name is Krazy George Henderson. Back in 1981, in the stands of the sold-out Oakland Coliseum, Krazy George had a vision. He was a professional cheerleader, a manic Robin Williams character with an Albert Einstein hairdo, banging on a drum. On an October afternoon, his beloved As were in the playoffs against the New York Yankees, and he imagined the crowd rising in a giant wave of connected human energy. By making this happen, Krazy George invented the Human wave. The Human wave is an extraordinary act. Masses of people from different walks of life, from soccer moms with their kids to rowdy bleacher bums came together with a common goal: to help the home team win.

The wave is a metaphor for what a diverse group of people can accomplish when they share a vision and values. As Jewish leaders, we want to make waves from the bimah, in the classroom, in a counseling situation, in a hospital, and in Sunday school. Think of how a rabbi can inspire a congregation to engage in tikkun olam by repairing a house in an impoverished neighborhood, making waves in the Jewish community and beyond. Think of how a teacher can lead a class discussion about the meaning of tzedakah that spills out into the hallway, and then into the homes of the students and out into the broader world. Think of how a cantor can begin with a single note and inspire a congregation not just to sing along, but to connect with one another, to form a community.

What can we learn from how Krazy George was able to create a wave so powerful that even those who came to root for the Yankees stood up with the As? He focused on How he connected with those around him. He shared his vision with passion and conviction so that others could believe in it and make it their own. What Krazy George understood is that human waves are not about exercising power over people. They are about generating power through people.

There is a hasidic saying that “one should observe How a master ties his shoes”—the lesson being that no behavior is insignificant. As leaders in a tradition that proclaims that every single person is created betzelem Elokim—in the image of G-d—and therefore possessed of infinite dignity, you, more than anyone, must remind people that every act and deed possesses the power to profoundly impact others.

What do inspirational leaders understand? They understand that the source of their power to influence others is shifting. Throughout most of human history, the sources of power were finite. No longer! In today’s knowledge economy, the sources of power—information and ideas—are infinite. Google gives them away for free. Since we can’t hoard information, old leadership habits are becoming less effective. Leadership habits are shifting from command-and-control to connect-and-collaborate, from exerting power over people, to generating waves through them.

As the source of power is shifting, leaders are also coming to understand that How they guide behavior must shift with it. There are three ways to generate human connection and conduct: you can coerce, motivate or inspire. Coercion says: “Get me the memo by 5 o’clock. My way or the highway. Just get it done, I don’t care How.” Motivation says: “If you get it done, you’ll get a bigger bonus.” Coercive or motivational leaders use external objects, carrots and sticks, to efficiently get performance out of people and connection with them, and to otherwise get people to play by a set of rules.

In our now power-through world, we are discovering the limits of carrots and sticks and learning that we can’t write enough rules to get the behaviors we want. If the only reason I work at a company is for a paycheck, then I’ll leave when I’m offered a bigger one. If the only reason I buy from one company is their price, then I’ll switch my loyalty if someone else sells it for less. Motivation is an expensive way to propel behavior, particularly in a recession when there are fewer carrots to go around.

That leads me to the third and, I believe, most powerful form of human influence: inspiration. The first two letters in “inspiration” are “in” signifying that the conduct is intrinsic. Whereas coercion and motivation happens to you, inspiration happens in you. Inspired people are guided by their own beliefs, in pursuit of a vision they believe is worthy of their dedication and in fidelity to values they deem to be fundamental.

Values are at the root of inspiration. Values are efficient and help us navigate infinite situations better than any rulebook. They are timeless, giving us strength to be consistent even though the pressures of life tell us to be situational. They are enduring, inspiring us to be principled however inconvenient, unpopular or dangerous that might be. Values elevate us to act beyond what we can do, to embrace what we should do.

What so many are just coming to understand is something that our 3000-year tradition has always recognized—the infinite power of values: “Devarim sheyotzim min halev, nichnasim el halev”—“Words that come from the heart, enter the heart of another.” Either by dint of necessity or foresight, Jewish leaders and institutions have sought a self-sustaining way to generate elevated and enlightened conduct, to enter the hearts of others and to inspire waves across generations.

Inspirational leaders are mindful of the paradox of hedonism, the philosophical idea that if you pursue happiness directly it eludes you. But if you passionately pursue a higher, more meaningful purpose, you can achieve happiness. I have learned from my work that there is a corollary to the paradox of hedonism. I call it the paradox of success—that you cannot achieve success by pursuing it directly. What inspirational leaders understand is that real and sustainable value can only be achieved when you pursue something greater than yourself, that makes a difference in the lives of others. The word I use for this is significance.

My hope is that each person reading this realizes you are uniquely qualified to make waves. It’s not just the synagogues, schools or Jewish community that need you. Right now, the world needs your passion, your energy, your Jewish values and your inspirational leadership. The world needs all of you to inspire significance.♦

Dov Seidman is Chief Executive Officer of LRN,, and author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything, He can be reached at

Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
Fall 2011