Sermon: The Habits of Mind for Leadership

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 16 March 2019

Go into the classrooms in many primary schools these days, and on the walls, alongside maps and timelines, children’s work and class rules, you may well see a colourful poster with 16 sections, presenting 16 different attributes that the school wants its pupils to exhibit in their learning.

These are what are known as Habits of Mind – behaviours that, these schools believe, if learned and practised will set young people up for a lifetime of successful, productive learning.

Habits of Mind schools are influenced by the work of two American educationalists, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick.
Over the last 30 years or so they have brought to the forefront the idea that education – especially in earlier years – must be as much about developing intellectual behaviours as it is knowledge or specific subject skills.  These habits are vital if we are to be able to apply ourselves to new challenges, new problems.

Behaviour number one on the Habits of Mind lists or charts is PERSISTING.
As Kallick writes, “Efficacious people stick to a task until it is completed.  They don’t give up easily…”

Similarly, one of the reigning buzzwords in American education over the last few years is the idea of Grit.
Popularised by the psychologist Angela Duckworth, grit is defined as the attribute of “perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal”.  This, Duckworth and others argue, is the most important psychological trait which accounts for success.

Persisting/perseverance/grit, these are ideas that resonate strongly for many of us; the idea that there is something admirable in keeping on going, trying again.  We teach our children not to give up.  Get knocked down, get up again.  “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” as Samuel Beckett put it.

We find this ideal in our texts, too.  Perhaps the greatest exemplar of persisting in learning and teaching in our tradition is a Sage called Rabbi P’reida.  P’reida had a student to whom he would have to teach each lesson 400 times before he understood it. On one occasion described in the Babylonian Talmud, he had to teach his student the same text 800 times.  On that day, the student was distracted by the fact that P’reida had something else to deal with after the lesson, so 400 just wasn’t enough.  And so, the story goes, P’reida sat down and taught him again – another 400 times – putting his other task on hold.  For which, of course, he received a suitably hyperbolic divine reward.
Such patience and dedication from a teacher, recognition of learning needs, and such persistence from a student, is what all of us would want from and for our children.  Persisting, not giving up, dedicating ourselves to a task are important ideals, life-long skills.

And not just important.
The Book of Proverbs states that “The righteous person falls seven times and gets up, while the wicked are tripped by one misfortune”.  This adds an additional idea – that there is a moral component too, to trying again.  In the face of adversity, in the face of tragedy or challenge, we see something righteous in the ability, the intent to carry on.

But persistence on its own is not always admirable.
There are circumstances in which it is not just ill-advised, but wrong:  Where it is not achieving anything; where persisting involves resistance to hearing or trying alternative solutions; where it is at the expense of others; where even if it achieves, that achievement is ultimately pyrrhic because of the damage that is done.
In such circumstances the desire to keep going, to stay on the same path is far from righteous.

The ‘Habits of Mind’ idea of Persisting recognises this.
Bena Kallick, again, includes in the definition persisting the ability to see a “range of alternatives”, “to recognize when a theory or idea must be rejected and another employed”.
And among the other habits of mind you might see on that primary school classroom wall are ‘thinking flexibly’, ‘listening to others’, ‘learning continuously’, ‘thinking about thinking’ – that is, willingness to change tack, ability to stop and hear others, reflective practice, thinking clearly about the consequences of one’s behaviours.  Persistence is a virtue, but it is insufficient.  Or, as another psychologist, Edward de Bono, pithily put it, “If you never change your mind, why have one?”

These attributes are also Jewish attributes, Jewish virtues.

I’ve spoken often from this desk – especially over the last two years – about the value placed in our tradition on P’sharah – compromise.  The example the Talmud gives is of two ships in a narrow channel or two laden camels on a mountain pass.  A court might find reasons that one or other should move, but ultimately if neither ship, neither camel has to give way – then neither can move without compromise.  And if both try to move, both insist they have the right, they are right, then both might sink; both might fall from the mountain. The text comes as a commentary on the phrase from Deuteronomy Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – the pursuit of justice – of rightness – requires both the first tzedek – Din, law, judgement – the possibility of a correct choice, but also the second tzedek, the possibility of P’sharah – of compromise.
The Israeli author Amos Oz z”l wrote, “The word compromise has a terrible reputation… especially among idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity.” He challenges that view, stating that to him the opposite of compromise is not a lack of integrity but fanaticism.
In our texts we discover that compromise is itself a form of righteousness.

So, too, the ability to think flexibly, to be flexible.  The Talmud tells us that “A person should always be bending like a reed and not hard like a cedar.”  While strength and permanence are admirable – and the cedar is chosen intentionally as a tree of great symbolic value, used in the building of the Temple – nonetheless it cannot be the model for human life.  We cannot be unbending.  We need to have flexibility, the ability to sway in the wind like a reed.

There is one other text that I’d like to share, especially for the baby that we have welcomed into our community this morning.  One of the favourite texts of her great-grandmother, was a text given in the name of ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot.  It asks a series of questions: Who is strong? Who is rich? Who is honoured?  This text begins: “Eizehu Chacham – Who is wise?”  The answer, “Ha-lomed mi-kol Adam”.  The one who learns from every person.  We can only learn from others when we are able to put aside our ego-centrism, be open to the possibility that we might need to do things another way.

Persisting is a virtue.  A habit of mind that it is crucial to develop.  When ingrained it allows us to keep going in the face of challenge, not to give up.  The righteous person gets up seven times after a fall.  Like Rabbi P’reida sometimes we must persevere to 800 repetitions.

But persisting is insufficient – it is insufficient to learn; it is insufficient for success; and it is insufficient to lead a country.

Over the week ahead, we can only pray that the other attributes that leadership requires – flexibility, listening, reflection – are not now entirely lost from our political class.  For Grit alone, zeal alone, persisting alone – these are not enough in these difficult days.  We have a right to expect of our leaders that they can demonstrate other habits of mind, too.