Home November 2016 Jewish Principles of Leadership

Jewish Principles of Leadership

1116politicsTucked between two tall buildings on Ben Gurion Boulevard in Tel Aviv, sits a small modest house that was the first prime minister’s home and study. The house is as it was during the years when he and his wife Paula lived there. In addition to the extensive documents and pictures displayed, is the simple fact that his entire house seems to be more of a library than just a house. All totaled, the many rooms hold over 20,000 books.

In my “First and Foremost” in the August issue, I focused on the importance of leaders being well read, well informed and willing to learn—one of the Jewish principles of leadership outlined in an opinion piece in the June 14, 2012 Jerusalem Post, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—principles drawn from the Torah that are as pertinent as ever.

The Torah says that a king must write his own Sefer Torah, which “must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life” (Deut. 17: 19). Joshua, Moses’s successor, is commanded: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night” (Josh. 1: 8). Without constant study, leadership lacks direction and depth. Leaders learn. They study more than others do. They read more than others do. I thought of that as I looked around Ben-Gurion’s house with a library of 20,000 books. “Study makes the difference between the statesman and the politician, between the transformative leader and the manager,” writes Rabbi Sacks.

But leadership begins with taking responsibility.  In the opening chapters of Genesis we learn about the failures of responsibility. Confronted by G-d with their sin, Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Cain says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In contrast, in “Exodus,” Moses, takes responsibility, though sometimes with troubling results, like when he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite and kills him; but other times he intervenes on behlaf of fairness and peace: when he sees two Israelites fighting, and again in Midian, when he sees shepherds abusing the daughters of Jethro.

Remember that Jethro tells his son-in-law Moses, “What you are doing is not good?” Only twice in the whole Torah does the phrase “lo tov” (not good) appear. The first is when G-d says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The second is when Jethro speaks to Moses. “We cannot live alone. We cannot lead alone.”

Leadership is also about the future; it is vision-driven. Leaders don’t look back, but forward. Before Moses can lead, he has to experience a vision at the burning bush. Yet his greatest leadership act occurs in the last month of his life. He gathers the people together on the bank of the Jordan and delivers the speeches that constitute the book of Deuteronomy. He looks to the future as he tells the people of the challenges they will face in the Promised Land. He gives them laws and sets forth the Torah’s vision of a good society. So before one can lead, one must have a vision of the future and be able to clearly articulate it.

Leadership also means believing in the people you lead. Judaism is very skeptical about power and very serious about influence. Hence one of Judaism’s greatest insights into leadership: The highest form of leadership is teaching. Power begets followers. Teaching creates leaders. Power lifts the leader above the people.  Influence lifts the people above their former selves.  Influence respects people; power controls people.

Leadership also involves a sense of timing and pace. One of Moses’s deepest frustrations is the sheer time it takes for people to change. In the end, it would take a new generation and a new leader to lead the people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Leadership involves a delicate balance between impatience and patience. Go too fast and people resist and rebel. Go too slowly and they become complacent. Transformation takes time, often more than a single generation.

The Torah points us in the direction of an ideal world, but it does not assume that we have reached it yet or are within striking distance. The people Moses led are like many of us today – prone to ambition, aspiration, vanity and arrogance. They had, and we have, the human desire for honor, status and respect. And Moses had to recognize that fact.

And so finally, for a leader to succeed he or she must be humble and avoid feelings of envy, lust or pride.

Good leaders assume the responsibility of leadership because there is work to do, there are people in need, there is injustice to be fought, and there are problems to be solved and challenges ahead. Leaders hear this as a call to “light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.” They lead because they know that to stand idly by and expect others to do the work is the too-easy option. They know that to lead is to serve; the highest accolade Moses ever received was to be called “eved Hashem“–“G-d’s servant. What was true for leaders then should be true for leaders today.

Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.


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