Harsh Answers

The candidates running for president each come with varying qualifications and accomplishments. Similarly, they each come with different character traits, and try to make the case as to why they are uniquely qualified to be leader of the free world.

For some, it is strength, as though they will be able to will things to get done. Others put forth their personal likeability, saying it would help them advance the policies they and the voters they represent feel are the ones the country needs. Still others want people to judge them based on their consistency, saying that this quality means that a vote for them means you know exactly what you are going to get from them as president.

This attempt to showcase one’s self, and convince people that there is nobody else quite as qualified for the job, doesn’t always work to the portrayers’ advantage. They can look patronizing if they begin to lecture voters who dare to differ with them.

Last week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had one such moment, speaking at a town hall in New Hampshire. A voter, getting a chance to ask a question, took the opportunity to ask Governor Christie about the TSA (Transportation Security Administration). The voter complained about the hassle this ineffective agency caused, and wondered what Christie, who, as a formal federal prosecutor who has made strong government power as a means of keeping the homeland safe central to his campaign, thought.

Christie, as is his wont when people disagree with him, was less than impressed with the question. “You know what else is inconvenient?” Christie asked. “Getting blown up on a plane.”

Setting aside the facts that Christie didn’t at all address the question, the entire attitude as to how he approached someone who doesn’t share his point of view is troubling. Is he so lacking in self-confidence that he needs to lash out at everyone who thinks differently?

That ought to convince voters.

We know, however, that true leadership isn’t about bravado and harsh talk. Shlomo Hamelech says in Koheles (9:17) “Divrei Chachamim b’nachas ­nishma’im, miza’akas moshel baksilim — The words of the wise spoken softly are heard more than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” The Mesilas Yesharim (Perek 22) says that when Chazal tell each and every one of us to speak softly to each other, it is based on this passuk. But there is a more specific lesson that is being taught here, as it pertains to leadership.

The Seforno explains the simple understanding of the passuk as follows: If a leader, he says, sets up his affairs wisely (whether going into battle or any other endeavor) and, in a calm manner, he will have an easier time leading his charges than if he shouts. Simply put, they will more likely follow his lead if they are led with a soft touch rather than with shouting.

There is a somewhat famous line from a 1975 interview that The New York Times did with Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. The interviewer asked how he got to his position of “Posek hador.” Reb Moshe, in what even The Times conceded was “typical of his modesty” said the following:

‘’You don’t wake up in the morning and decide you’re an expert on answers. If people see that one answer is good and another answer is good, gradually you will be accepted.’’

The Times only saw the humility in the answer, but there is so much more. A leader can’t impose his will (or even psakim) on people by force. A leader needs to lead, using, as all our great leaders and teachers have used, a soft touch, and only then, when needed, a strong word.

Those of us who have had the opportunities to be around great people have seen this time and time again. An elderly Rosh Yeshivah entertaining the talmid who thinks he has the question which disproves the entire shiur his rebbi just gave. The posek who listens to every question presented to him, and allows the questioner to feel as though they asked the most novel question ever, even in the cases where it isn’t. These are true leaders.

Answering people by doubling down and retorting harshly is comforting. It is easy to fall into that trap. By harshly answering a challenge we convince ourselves and those who agree with us that our position is beyond reproach — much like Chris Christie undoubtedly feels about the TSA. But it doesn’t convince other people. And sometimes (although not always) that’s an important question to consider.