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About Utah: Jewish scholar Dr. Erica Brown offers old-school approach to modern leadership

Published: Monday, Feb. 25 2013 11:23 p.m. MST

Writer, lecturer and leadership consultant Erica Brown. (shalomdc.org) Writer, lecturer and leadership consultant Erica Brown. (shalomdc.org)

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer, lecturer and educator in the Washington, D.C., area whose views on leadership and the importance of setting a strong moral compass have attracted an enthusiastic following in boardrooms, classrooms, political offices and leadership seminars throughout the country.

But what sets her apart isn’t a new, revolutionary take on leadership.

Rather, it’s a reliance on traditional Jewish learning that dates back thousands of years.

She uses the texts, philosophy and wisdom of ancient Judaism to confront contemporary challenges and moral dilemmas and to guide effective modern leadership.

That reliance serves as the foundation for her books. She’s written four, and a fifth, “Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death,” is about to be published by Simon & Schuster.

It stands as the basis for her Internet essays, “Weekly Jewish Wisdom,” that have appeared on the websites of Newsweek and The Washington Post.

And it provides the thesis for the numerous lectures, seminars and workshops she regularly conducts in the Washington, D.C., area — attracting a wide variety of enthusiastic followers, including, among others, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, who wrote in a column about Dr. Brown: “She offers a path out of the tyranny of the perpetually open mind by presenting authoritative traditions and teachings.”

In a conversation with the Deseret News, Dr. Brown talked about her unique blend of old-school philosophy and new-school popularity.

Deseret News: You operate in a very cosmopolitan world, and yet you are fiercely devoted to the importance of traditional Jewish teaching. How is it that even in a complex modern world the teaching and principles from thousands of years ago have such wisdom, insight and relevance?

Dr. Erica Brown: I think great literature transcends the boundaries of time and geography. I take great comfort in being linked to a community both horizontally and vertically, through connection to others who live today and by connecting to the people and texts of the past and taking them into the future.

DN: What is it in your personal history that has shaped what and how you teach today?

EB: I made my own faith journey as a teenager who wanted to be more observant of my faith and learn more about it. My mother was a child survivor of the Holocaust and my grandparents were both in Auschwitz. When you have a legacy of this kind of pain for just being a member of a people, you either walk away or you transform the pain to joy. I choose the latter.

DN: In a nutshell, how would you sum up your message to leaders?

EB: Lead from within. Lead from a place of spirit, courage, compassion, grace, humor and moral commitment. There is simply too much scandal and bad behavior today on the part of our leaders — political, corporate and religious — to believe that leadership still has nobility. Emerging leaders have to give a message that they have redeemed leadership from this dark and murky place.

DN: You have attracted a significant following among leaders in various walks of life. From your observation and from the feedback you receive, what, in your view, are the underlying reasons?

EB: Not sure I agree with you — perhaps I should have put humility in the above list. I take that back, I definitely should have put it there. I think if people are searching it is because people want good leaders and they also want to be better at leadership. As we care less and less about institutions culturally, we understand that sometimes large organizations fail individuals and we have to get ourselves back on track.

DN: What sort of leaders/people have you found respond best to what you counsel and suggest?

EB: Good question. I think people who are intellectually curious and also committed to personal growth do best in intentional studies of leadership. It's not about loving an abstract idea. It's about changing the way you lead to be more effective and impactful.

DN: Are there modern dilemmas that perplex you; that bump up against the boundaries of your faith and understanding?

EB: I think power corrupts and those with religious power are most likely to be caught up in it because their followers have such profound trust in them. These abuses have no boundaries and we are witnessing that in terrible proportions. I am also wildly stumped by the levels of incivility we have reached in this country so that critical issues have become partisan issues and we cannot talk about them in any coherent, intelligent way — gun control, health care, abortion, social security, taking care of the most vulnerable. It's not that we don't have solutions. It’s that we will never have them unless we can have a respectful and robust debate without name-calling. It all feels so juvenile.

DN: Given your strong convictions regarding Judaism, what is your view about the role of other faith traditions in the world?

EB: I think most people have some faith tradition that they grow up with, even if it lies dormant. Judaism is one path of many to reaching God, to forming communities of kindness and to helping every individual achieve goodness. There are so many paths. I am grateful for mine and always grateful when others find theirs, as long as it is a tradition that is tolerant of others and minimizes violence. Too many have killed in the name of God for any person of faith not to be shamed by it.

DN: How does a person of strong faith convictions work productively with those who share similarly strong convictions from another tradition?

EB: I have much more in common with those of other faiths than those of no faith, generally.

DN: What kind of study and faith practice can help people today feel confident about living their beliefs?

EB: I think that shared prayer is important but will not reach everyone. I do think that shared study of sacred texts is critical in beginning conversations around ethics, friendship and life in community. Find texts that inspire you and help reinforce justice and kindness and make time to study them. Study always reminds me what I stand for and what I live for. I also think that we don't remind ourselves enough that we are not only descendants. We are also ancestors. Someday people will think of the legacy that we have left. What will be yours? What will people remember about you?

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com.

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