Choosing a President: The Paradox of Greatness

America has finally chosen its next president and it’s about time too. After a year of relentless campaigning the candidates have collectively spent over a billion and a half dollars, clocked up thousands of travelling miles, addressed hundreds of rallies and kissed numerous babies as they desperately battled for the vote. It is a grueling process and it self-selects the most tenacious, focused and driven of candidates. US Presidential elections are not for sissies. And yet are they necessarily the best way to choose the leader of the free world?

While drive, focus and tenacity are qualities needed in a president there are numerous other qualities necessary in a leader that are simply not tested or brought to the fore through the aggressive self-promotion of a presidential campaign. These include wisdom, forbearance, humility, temperance, integrity and authenticity.

Ironically those who have these qualities in abundance are least likely to put themselves forward as candidates. And yet it is precisely such individuals who have what it takes to become great leaders.

The Talmud gives expression to this paradox when it observes that ‘one who pursues greatness finds that greatness eludes him, whereas one who flees from greatness finds that greatness follows him.’

This might be the reason that in the bible almost every successful leader initially resisted the role of leadership. Moses begged God to chose someone else as his messenger, Saul hid when the prophet Samuel declared him first king of Israel, the military  commander Gideon declared himself unfit to lead his people’s army, and the prophets- particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah – desperately did not want the job.

What makes reluctant candidates attractive potential leaders is their keen awareness of their own limitations combined with the fact that they are beholden to no one but their own best judgement and moral conscience. A far cry from the shameless self promotion of a presidential campaign and its alignment with, and dependency on, special interest groups.

While it is neither desirable nor possible to revert to the non-democratic model of biblical leadership appointment, there is something in that model that is worth retaining. Can we find a way of attracting to high office men and women of great ability and character who simply don’t have the stomach to promote themselves relentlessly for over a year?  Might there be a way of encouraging candidates of great integrity to enter a process where they can speak honestly and openly about both their strengths and weaknesses? Is there any way we could raise the level of debate so as to attract candidates who are more interested in having a conversation than a shouting match? And can we temper the adversarial tone of electioneering to encourage candidates who are more interested in talking about ideas than putting down their opponent?

If we can, we might discover remarkable leaders in the most unlikely places.


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