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5 Leadership Lessons From the Seder

The Passover Seder has much to teach us about the functioning of a healthy team.
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Last night our family participated in a Passover Seder with a number of friend and colleagues. Our group was a mix of  academicians, school teachers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. The conversation took a somewhat unexpected direction, as we started discussing the lessons that can be learned from the Seder experience in terms of how we behave in groups and how we should think about leading teams.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Passover Seder is a ritual meal involving the retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Families, friends, and acquaintances, and strangers gather around the table to retell the story and engage in discussion. 

What has always struck me is how the very nature of the Seder draws people together to focus on the universal theme of freedom.  On this night, it was particularly apparent that the table was host to some wonderful team dynamics -- 25 people engaged in debate, discussion, and disagreement, all while maintaining a sense of cohesion.

What are the team leadership lessons?

1. Talk on the same level  Everyone speaks as an equal at the Seder meal. Your age, background or status matters little. The atmosphere is such that all ideas are welcomed and listened to. 

2. Remember what you all have in common  The story of the Exodus is told as a common experience and as an expression of common core value of freedom. To the participants, it serves as a reminder of what they share.

3. Do not let the strongest dominate  Part of the Seder ritual involves the asking of questions. The strongest questions sometimes come from the youngest and the most naive participants. Hierarchy of knowledge and experience is not necessarily seen as validation of a superb question. Everyone is encouraged to think outside the box.

4. Do not rush  The Seder is rarely a short gathering. The telling of the story may take three to four hours. Dinner is leisurely, and the discussion is continuous. The length of the ritual allows for openness and the development of a shared group experience.

5. Welcome everyone One of the strengths of the Seder ritual is the notion of the open door. It is an inclusive event where all are welcome. Indeed, it is considered an obligation to include all, not just those who are close to you.

Sometimes we tend to look far  away for leadership lessons, and tend to think that what goes on in our world of business and entrepreneurship is totally unique.  I suppose one of the lessons of last night’s experience is how much we can learn from our rituals and our histories, and how we can use them to enrich our own leadership capacity. 

As one person reflected after last night’s experience: “If I ran my company the way this evening was run, I may have had fewer headaches, I would have gotten more out of people, and I would have enjoyed it just a bit more.” 

Last updated: Mar 26, 2013

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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