Hillel the Elder, or ‘Rabbi’ Hillel, a Jewish leader who died in 10 CE, is remembered outside the Jewish tradition by his saying “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”.
There are some variations of the saying depending of translation liberties, but the three pillars ‘myself’, ‘only about myself?’ and ‘now!’ have remained intact. It is often simplified as “If not us, who” If not now, when?”, and, as a commentator put it, ‘it involves discussion from Hillel to George W. Romney to Robert F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama to Saturday Night Live’. In other words…
The triad has resisted time magnificently and it constitutes perhaps the simplest model of leadership thinking.
It starts with reflection about oneself. The first time you read it, it even sounds a bit selfish and self-centric. But it isn’t. It’s looking inside oneself. The second part is very direct and bold. It does not ask who you are but ‘what’, as in what kind of beast. The third part, is a part in a hurry: so, if not now, when on earth?
Marshall Ganz, father of modern social activism and leadership for collective action (Kennedy School of Government) uses a matching trio when it comes to the use of storytelling as part of that leadership development. He talks about ‘the story of self’ (personal introspection, testimonial, sharing with others); ‘the story of us’ (the collective, the group, the activists) and ‘the story of now’ (the sense of urgency, the now). These are Hillel’s translations.
This terribly simple trio has helped me enormously in the framing of my leadership work. It also reminds me of the need for us in managerial and leadership positions of some sort, to tap into historical sources of wisdom, as opposed to, say, the twitter feed!
Of course all this can be trivialized, packaged and Macdonaldised, and yes, since ‘all that is solid can melt in the air’, (Rabbi Marx?) all that is wisdom can become a car sticker.
But for me, the “If not us, who; If not now, when?” is a constant call to action, small or big. A shot of motivation difficult to resist. ‘Self, us and now’, could be the best leadership slogan if you need one. I have adopted it.
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