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Defining Success

Defining Success

A post from The Leading Edge, a blog by expert in Jewish leadership
Dr. Hal M. Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute, on
Judaism, leaders, and leadership.

The business literature has been filled of late with innumerable discussions about success — how to achieve it, how to measure it, what it looks like, and where it comes from. Considerable controversy has emerged on this last point, in particular. Political junkies will remember an incident during the 2012 presidential campaign in which emotions ran high over who should get credit for the success of small business in America. Many took great exception to the suggestion that success is attributable to factors beyond the talents of an individual entrepreneur. Similarly, during a recent 60 Minutes interview Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg critiqued women in the workplace for attributing their success to "working hard, luck, and other people," rather than to their "own core skills."

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the 2008 book Outliers offered a different perspective on the roots of success when he observed, "We've been far too focused on the individual … in order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them — at their culture and community and family and generation. We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looking at the forest."

So which is it? When you think about your personal achievements do you attribute your success to your own core skills or to other people, luck, and outside circumstances?

Jewish sources offer a compelling perspective on these matters. Ours is a tradition steeped in principles of gratitude — to God and to others. Observant Jews endeavor to recite meah brahot at least one hundred blessings a day, expressing thanks for everything from the food we eat to our financial security. For Jews, public acknowledgment of our indebtedness is a prominent feature of every day and every festival. Arrogating to ourselves credit which belongs to God is a form of
idolatry. But it is not just the Divine we acknowledge. We recognize our indebtedness to our politicos and our physicians, our parents, and our teachers, our students, and our colleagues. Even good fortune and luck are recognized as playing a part in human accomplishment. Crediting our success to others is not a sign of weakness. Acknowledging that our accomplishments are bigger than ourselves is a basic truth in Jewish writings.

The most successful Jewish leader of all times — Moses — is known, not coincidentally, as the most humble of all individuals. The sources tell us that his success depended upon a variety of external factors, both human — his brother Aaron, his father-in-law Jethro, the elders — and Divine. His prodigious achievements were neither compromised nor attenuated by his humility. On the contrary, his ability to give credit to others, to admit his shortcomings, and to collaborate, lie at the heart of his success. 

What then is the relationship between personal skills and talents, on the one hand and outside factors, on the other? Jewish sources remind us that even humble leaders, those who readily acknowledge they owe their success to factors beyond themselves, need not deny their own achievements. Indeed, our classical texts caution against false humility, which must not become an excuse for timidity or indecisiveness. Even as they acknowledge their indebtedness to others, leaders must stand up for their beliefs. They cannot allow a false sense of humility to paralyze initiative or to weaken resolve.

This balance between self and others, between personal achievement and indebtedness to those around us, between humility and pride, is key to the management of our success now and in the future.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. He can be reached at