Summary: In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the importance of leadership in Jewish thought, and specifically within the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.
There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.
Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school aged students (15-18 years old).
Rabbi Sacks often told the story of his first encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and how it changed his life, many times. Here are some books where he included the story of this life-changing experience:
- Lessons in Leadership, pp. xxiv-xxvii (see below)
- A Letter in the Scroll, (aka Radical Then, Radical Now) pp. 209-211
- The Great Partnership, pp. 89-92
- Judaism’s Life Changing Ideas, pp. 127-128
You can also see a video of him telling the story as part of his address to the International Conference of Chabad Shluchim in 2011 (watch from 5.28-15.00).
You can use this story (in whichever way you may wish to share it) as a hook to discuss leadership concepts, such as:
- What is leadership?
- Who is a leader?
- What makes a great leader?
- How do you know you have leadership potential?
- How can you actualise your leadership potential?
- Do we all have leadership roles to play?
- How can we know what our destiny/God wants from us?
- What will your impact as a leader be on the Jewish people?
The following written form of this story is taken from the Introduction to the book Lessons in Leadership.
There is a story I have told elsewhere, but it is worth retelling in the present context. It happened in the summer of 1968, when I was an undergraduate student at Cambridge. Like most of the Jews of my generation I was deeply affected by the anxious weeks leading up to the Six Day War in June 1967, when it seemed as if Israel was facing a massive onslaught by its neighbours. We, the generation born after the Holocaust, felt as if we were about to witness, God forbid, a second Holocaust.
The little synagogue in Thompsons Lane was thronged with students, many of whom had shown little engagement with Jewish life until then. The sudden, extraordinary victory of Israel released a wave of relief and exhilaration. Unbeknown to us, something similar was happening throughout the Jewish world, and it led to some dramatic consequences: the awakening of Soviet Jewry, the birth of a new type of yeshiva for baalei teshuvah, people returning to tradition, and a new sense of confidence in Jewish identity. It was, for instance, the first time Jewish students felt able, or moved, to wear a yarmulke in public.
I decided to spend the next summer travelling around the United States and Canada, meeting as many Rabbis and Jewish thinkers as possible, to get some sense of where they were spiritually and intellectually. I was studying secular philosophy at the time, and it was almost taken for granted, in Britain at least, that being a philosopher meant that you were an atheist, or at the very least an agnostic. I wanted to know how Jewish thinkers in America were responding to these challenges. In 1966, Commentary, an American Jewish magazine, had published an issue titled The Condition of Jewish Belief, in which thirty-eight leading Rabbis and theologians gave their answers to a series of questions about faith. There was no equivalent in British Jewry. So I booked a flight and a Greyhound bus ticket, and in the spirit of Simon and Garfunkel counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, I came to look for America.
I met many impressive thinkers, but two names kept coming up in conversation: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. Rabbi Soloveitchik was the outstanding Jewish mind of the age, an intellectual giant who combined, as few have done, Talmudic mastery with philosophical depth, exegetical genius, and poetic insight into the human condition.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, meanwhile, had emerged as a unique leader in Jewish life. He had done something very unusual: he had turned his chassidic group outwards, sending them to campuses and small communities, places that had never encountered that kind of Orthodoxy before. It is hard now, half a century later, to realise that almost no one had engaged in Jewish “outreach” before. He was a genuine pioneer, the rarest of phenomena in an ultra-traditionalist segment of Jewish life better known for its segregation from the rest of the Jewish world. Wherever I went, people spoke of him with awe.
I was determined to meet them both. The story of my encounter with Rabbi Soloveitchik belongs elsewhere. It was the meeting with the Rebbe that has to do with leadership, in a way that was completely unexpected. Full of chutzpah, I had gone to his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, asking the first Hasid I met how to arrange a meeting. He collapsed laughing. “Do you realise how many thousands of people want to see the Rebbe?” he said. He told me to forget about
it. It was simply not possible. Undaunted, I told him I would be travelling around the United States and Canada for the next few weeks, but that in a few weeks’ time I would be staying with my aunt in Los Angeles, and if by any chance there was a possibility of a meeting, I could be contacted there. I gave him my aunt’s phone number.
To my surprise, four weeks later, on a Sunday night, the phone rang. The Rebbe, I was told, could see me for a few minutes on Thursday evening. I packed my case, said goodbye to my aunt, and travelled by Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to New York, not a journey I would necessarily recommend to anyone wanting to travel coast to coast. That Thursday night I met the Rebbe. It was a meeting that changed my life.
He was quite unlike what I expected. There was no charisma, no overflowing personality. To the contrary, he was so self-effacing that there seemed to be only one person in the room: the person to whom he was speaking. This in itself was surprising. I later discovered that this was one of the fundamental principles of Jewish mysticism, bittul hayesh, the nullification of the self, the better to be open to the Divine, and also the human, Other.
More surprising still was what happened halfway into our conversation. Having patiently answered my questions, he performed a role reversal and started asking questions of his own. How many Jewish students were there at Cambridge University? How many of them were engaged with Jewish life? How many came to the synagogue? And when he heard the answers – at the time, only about ten per cent of the Jewish students were in any way actively engaged with Jewish life – he asked me what I was personally doing about this.
This was not what I was expecting. I had not the slightest intention of taking on any leadership role. I began a tortuous statement explaining why this had nothing to do with me: “In the situation in which I find myself…,” I began. The Rebbe let the sentence go no further. “You do not find yourself in a situation,” he said. “You put yourself in one. And if you put yourself in one situation you can put yourself in another.” Quite soon it became clear what he was doing. He was challenging me to act. Something was evidently wrong with Jewish student life in Cambridge, and he was encouraging me to get involved, to do something to change the situation.
What happened over the next few decades is a story for another time and place. Suffice it to say that this encounter was the beginning of a long journey that led, in time, to a young man who had plans of becoming a lawyer, an economist, or an academic, becoming instead a rabbi, a teacher of Rabbis, and eventually a Chief Rabbi. In retrospect I said that people misjudged the Rebbe. They saw him as a man with thousands of followers. It was true, but it was the least interesting thing about him. What I learned from him was that a good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders. That is what the Rebbe did.Lessons in Leadership, pp. xxiv-xxvi
Rabbi Sacks dedicated an entire cycle of Covenant & Conversation (his series of weekly essays on the parsha) to the topic of leadership (the cycle for 5774, which was ran again in 5781). This was subsequently published in book form under the title Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible by Maggid books. The following texts are quoted in these essays.
Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership in the sources
1. Leadership is Service
- Bamidbar 12:3
- Devarim 17:18-20
- Devarim 34:5
- Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars, 2:6
The most famous buildings in the ancient world were the Mesopotamian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids. These were more than just buildings. They were statements in stone of a hierarchical social order. They were wide at the base and narrow at the top. At the top was the king or pharaoh – at the point, so it was believed, where heaven and earth met. Beneath was a series of elites, and beneath them the labouring masses…
Judaism is a protest against this kind of hierarchy. Every human being, not just the king, is in the image and likeness of God. Therefore no one is entitled to rule over any other without his or her assent…
In a social order in which everyone has equal dignity in the eyes of Heaven, a leader does not stand above the people. He serves the people, and he serves God. The great symbol of biblical Israel, the Menorah, is an inverted pyramid or ziggurat, broad at the top, narrow at the base. The greatest leader is therefore the most humble. “Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on earth” (Num. 12:3). The name given to this is servant leadership and its origin is in the Torah.Lessons in Leadership – Korach: Servant Leadership
- During which part of Moses’ career can we find these key verses describing his leadership style (clue – which books from Tanach are they from)?
- Were there any earlier clues to his leadership approach during the process of his election to leadership? Are these more impressive sources? Why?
- What values can you conclude are central to Jewish leadership from this principle of Jewish leadership as service?
2. Leadership begins by taking responsibility
- Bereishit 3:9-12
- Bereishit 4:8-10
- Bereishit 6:9-22
- Rashi on Bereishit 6:9
- Bereishit 18:17-33
- Shemot 2:11-14
It took a Moses to act. But that is what makes a leader. A leader is one who takes responsibility. Leadership is born when we become active rather than passive, when we do not wait for someone else to act because perhaps there is no one else – at least not here, not now. When bad things happen, some avert their eyes. Some wait for others to act. Some blame others for failing to act. Some simply complain. But there are people who say, “If something is wrong, let me be among the first to put it right.” They are the leaders. They are the ones who make a difference in their lifetimes. They are the ones who make ours a better world.
Many of the great religions and civilisations are based on acceptance. If there is violence, suffering, poverty, and pain in the world, then that is the way the world is. Or that is the will of God. Or that is the nature of nature itself. All will be well in the World to Come.
Judaism was and remains the world’s great religion of protest. The heroes of faith did not accept; they protested. They were willing to confront God Himself. Abraham said, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25). Moses said, “Why have You done evil to this people?” (Ex. 5:22). Jeremiah said, “Why are the wicked at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). That is how God wants us to respond. Judaism is God’s call to human responsibility. The highest achievement is to become God’s partner in the work of creation.Lessons in Leadership – Bereishit: Taking Responsibility
- What leadership failures can you see in the stories of Adam and Chava, Kain and Hevel, and Noach?
- What are the differences in leadership style between Noach and Avraham? Which model does Moses fit in to?
- What values can you conclude are central to Jewish leadership from this principle of Jewish leadership?
3. Leadership is vision-driven
- Shemot Chapter 3
- Shemot 19:1-6
- Mishlei 29:18
Great leaders, be they CEOs or simply parents, have the ability to connect a large vision with highly specific details. Without the vision, the details are merely tiresome… Great leaders communicate a vision. But they are also painstaking, even perfectionists, when it comes to the details… So the Torah is a unique combination of nomos and narrative, history and law, the formative experiences of a nation and the way that nation sought to live its collective life so as never to forget the lessons it learned along the way. It brings together vision and detail in a way that has never been surpassed.
That is how we must lead if we want people to come with us, giving of their best. There must be a vision to inspire us, telling us why we should do what we are asked to do. There must be a narrative: this is what happened, this is who we are, and this is why the vision is so important to us. Then there must be the law, the code, the fastidious attention to detail, that allow us to translate vision into reality and turn the pain of the past into the blessings of the future. That extraordinary combination, to be found in almost no other law code, is what gives Torah its enduring power. It is a model for all who seek to lead people to greatness.Lessons in Leadership – Mishpatim: Vision and Detail
- What specific vision was Moses given when he was chosen to lead? How was this vision expanded upon for the people at Sinai?
- What do you think is more important to leadership, the grand vision or the small details?
- What values can you conclude are central to Jewish leadership from this principle of Jewish leadership?
4. The Highest Form of Leadership is Teaching
- Devarim 1:1
- Devarim 31:12
- Malachi 2:7
It was one of the great moments of personal transformation, and it changed not only Moses but our very conception of leadership itself.
By the end of the book of Numbers, Moses’ career as a leader seemed to have come to its end. He had appointed his successor, Joshua, and it would be Joshua, not Moses, who would lead the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses seemed to have achieved everything he was destined to achieve. For him there would be no more battles to fight, no more miracles to perform, no more prayers to say on behalf of the people.
It is what Moses did next that bears the mark of greatness. For the last month of his life he assembled the people and delivered the series of addresses we know as the book of Deuteronomy or Devarim, literally “words.” In them, he reviewed the people’s past and foresaw their future. He gave them laws. Some he had given them before but in a different form. Others were new; he had waited to announce them until the people were about to enter the land. Linking all these details of law and history into a single overarching vision, he taught the people to see themselves as an am kadosh, a holy people, the only people whose sovereign and lawgiver was God Himself…
In the last month of his life Moses ceased to be the liberator, the miracle-worker, and redeemer, and became instead Moshe Rabbenu, “Moses, our teacher.” He was the first example in history of a leadership type in which Jews have excelled: the leader as teacher…
Teachers are the unacknowledged builders of the future, and if a leader seeks to make lasting change, they must follow in the footsteps of Moses and become an educator. The leader as teacher – using influence rather than power, spiritual and intellectual authority rather than coercive force – was one of the greatest contributions Judaism ever made to the moral horizons of humankind. This can be seen most clearly in the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses, for the last month of his life, summoned the next generation and taught it laws and lessons that would survive, and inspire, as long as there are human beings on earth.Lessons in Leadership – Devarim: The Leader as Teacher
- Which three leadership models are found in these verses and what is the common theme running through them?
- Are all leaders teachers? Are all teachers leaders?
- What values can you conclude are central to Jewish leadership from this principle of Jewish leadership?
5. A Leader Must Have Faith in the People they Lead
- Shemot 4:1
- Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 97a
One of the fundamental tasks of any leader from President to parent is to give people a sense of confidence – in themselves, in the group of which they are a part, and in the mission itself. A leader must have faith in the people they lead, and they must inspire that faith in them. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School writes in her book Confidence, “Leadership is not about the leader, it is about how they build the confidence of everyone else.” Confidence, by the way, is Latin for “having faith together.”
The truth is that in no small measure, a law of self-fulfilling prophecy applies in the human arena. Those who say, “We cannot do it” are probably right, as are those who say, “We can.” If you lack confidence you will lose. If you have it – solid, justified confidence based on preparation and past performance – you will win. Not always, but often enough to triumph over setbacks and failures.Lessons in Leadership – Shelach Lecha: Confidence
- Why is it important for a leader to have faith in her/his followers?
- Can you think of other times Moses displayed a lack of faith in the people?
6. Leaders Need a Sense of Timing and Pace
- Bamidbar 27:15-17
- Bamidbar 13-14
- Mishnah Avot 2:16
There is an interpretation – one I only discovered through the life of leadership itself. A leader must indeed lead from the front. But they must also understand the pace at which people can go. Leadership is not effective if leaders are so far ahead of those they lead that when they turn their heads round, they discover that there is no one following. Leaders must go out in front and come back in front. But they must also “lead the people out and bring them back,” meaning, they must take people with them. They must make sure that the people are keeping up with them. They must pace the challenge.
Moses discovered this through the episode of the spies. He was ready to enter the Promised Land. So were two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb. But the rest of the people were not, including ten of the spies. For them it was too much, too soon. The spies raised doubts. The people despaired. Some regretted the fact that they had ever left Egypt. We recall Maimonides’ explanation in The Guide for the Perplexed that human nature changes at best gradually, never suddenly. It proved too much to expect that a generation born in slavery would be able to fight the battle of freedom. It would take forty years – an entire generation. Their children, born in freedom and toughened by the experience of the desert, would have the strength their parents lacked.
Recall, though, what happened next. No sooner had Moses told the people of the forty-year delay than they regretted their reaction and wanted to begin the conquest of the land immediately. Moses warned them it would end in disaster, but they refused to listen:
Early the next morning, [the people] began climbing towards the top of the hill, declaring, “We are now ready! We shall go forwards to the place that God described. We [admit that] we were mistaken.” “Why are you going against God’s word?” said Moses. “It will not work! Do not proceed; God is not with you. Do not be killed by your enemies!”…[But the people] defiantly climbed towards the top of the hill, though neither the Ark of God’s covenant nor Moses moved from the camp. The Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated [the Israelites], pursuing them with crushing force all the way to Hormah. (Num. 14:40–45)
First the people thought the conquest could not be done at all, then they thought it could be done immediately. What they lacked was a sense of pace and timing. They failed to understand how much preparation, mental and physical, would be needed. It was this experience, I suspect, that lay behind Moses’ twofold request. He asked God to appoint a successor who would lead from the front, but who would also understand that he had to go at a speed at which the people could keep up with him.Covenant & Conversation, Numbers: The Wilderness Years: Leadership and the Art of Pacing
- What happens if a leader is too far ahead of his time?
- Why do people need time?
7. We are all summoned to the task
- Shemot 18:13-22
- Shemot 19:4-6
- Talmud Bavli, Shevuot, 39a
Prior to the Revelation at Mount Sinai, God commands Moses to propose a covenant with the Israelites. In the course of this, God articulates what is in effect the mission statement of the Jewish people (Ex. 19:4–6). This is a very striking statement. Every nation had its priests. In the book of Genesis, we encounter Melchizedek, Abraham’s contemporary, described as “a priest of the most high God” (Gen. 14:18). The story of Joseph mentions the Egyptian priests, whose land was not nationalised during the famine (47:22). Yitro was a Midianite priest. In the ancient world there was nothing distinctive about priesthood. Every nation had its priests and holy men. What was distinctive about Israel was that every one of its members was to be a priest; each of its citizens was called on to be holy…
Yet in what sense were Jews ever “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6)? The priests were an elite within the nation, members of the tribe of Levi, descendants of Aaron, the first High Priest. There never was a full democratisation of keter kehuna, the crown of priesthood.
Faced with this problem, the commentators offer two solutions. The word kohanim, “priests,” may mean “princes” or “leaders” (Rashi, Rashbam). Or it may mean “servants” (Ibn Ezra, Ramban). But this is precisely the point. The Israelites were called on to be a nation of servant-leaders. They were the people called on, by virtue of the covenant, to accept responsibility not only for themselves and their families, but for the moral-spiritual state of the nation as a whole. This is the principle that later became known as kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “All Israelites are responsible for one another” (Shevuot 39a). Jews were the people who did not leave leadership to a single individual, however holy or exalted, or to an elite. Instead, every one of them was expected to be both a prince and a servant; that is to say, every one of them was called on to be a leader. Never was leadership more profoundly democratised.Lessons in Leadership – Yitro: A Nation of Leaders
- Why is delegation important? Why is it difficult for leaders to delegate?
- If the entire nation is made up of holy priests, why do we need a system of leadership?
Rabbi Sacks dedicated an entire year of his Covenant & Conversation series to the topic of leadership. This was subsequently published in book form under the title Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible by Maggid books. Included in that volume was an introductory essay entitled Daring Greatly, and an afterword essay entitled Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership, where he explores seven principles that are central to Jewish leadership. The following texts are from these two essays.
The Torah as a Leadership Manual
It [is] fascinating to discover how much of the Torah is, in fact, about leadership, not in the narrow sense of holding formal office, but rather as a general approach to life. The heroes and heroines of the Torah, the patriarchs and matriarchs and their children, and the Israelites as they left Egypt and journeyed to the Promised Land, were all faced with the responsibilities of freedom. That, it seems to me, is the central drama of Judaism. The ancient Greeks produced a monumental literature about character and fate, with larger-than-life heroes and often tragic outcomes. Ancient Israel produced a quite different literature about will and choice, with figures with whom we can identify, often battling with their own emotions against defeat and despair.
The Torah offers us some dramatic and unexpected scenarios. It was not Noah, the “righteous man, perfect in his generations,” who became the role model for the religious life but rather Abraham, who confronted God with some of the most audacious words in the history of faith: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” Moses, the hero of four of the Torah’s five books, is surely one of the most unexpected leaders of all time, inarticulate and tongue-tied at first, and utterly unconvinced of his capacity to fulfil the task to which God has summoned him.
It is a pattern that continued throughout Jewish history. Saul, Israel’s first king, looked every inch the part, “heads and shoulders above” his contemporaries, yet he turned out to lack both courage and confidence, earning the stinging rebuke of the prophet Samuel, “You may be small in your own eyes, yet you are head of the tribes of Israel” (I Sam. 15:17). David, his successor, was so unlikely a candidate that when Samuel was told to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king, no one even thought of including him among the candidates. The battles the Greek heroes had to fight were against their enemies. The battles their Jewish counterparts had to fight were against themselves: their fears, their hesitations, their sense of unworthiness. In that sense, it seems to me, the Torah speaks to all of us, whether we see ourselves as leaders or not.
- Why is the Torah a good place to learn about leadership?
- Does the Torah present ‘perfect’ role models of leaders for us? Is this good or bad?
- Who are the greatest ever Jewish leaders and what can we learn about them?
Everyone has the responsibility to be a leader
We are all called on to be leaders within our sphere of influence, be it the family, the community, at work among colleagues, or in play among teammates. What distinguishes a leader from a non-leader is not position or office or role but rather, a basic attitude to life. Others wait for something to happen; leaders help make something happen. While others curse the darkness, a leader lights a light. The Sages said that whenever we see the word vayehi, “And it came to pass,” it is always a prelude to tragedy. Leaders don’t wait for things to come to pass. They say not vayehi but yehi, “Let there be.” That was the word with which God created the universe. It is also the word with which we create a meaningful life, one that leaves the world a little better for our presence.
- Do you agree that everyone has leadership potential?
- If everyone is a leader, then who is following?
- What will your impact be as a Jewish leader?
The distinction between Leadership and Authority
[There is a] distinction between leadership and authority. Authority is something you have in virtue of office or the position you hold in a family, community, or society. Presidents and prime ministers, chief executives and team captains all have authority. But they do not necessarily lead. They can be unimaginative or defensive; they can resist change even when it is clear that change is needed. The classic example is Pharaoh in the book of Exodus. Long after it has become clear that his refusal to let the Israelites leave is bringing disaster on his people, he continues obstinately to refuse.
Conversely, one can lead without authority. Here the classic example is Nachshon son of Aminadav who, according to tradition, was the first to wade into the Red Sea, after which the waters parted so that the Israelites could cross over on dry land. The fact that tradition has preserved this detail despite the fact that it is not mentioned in the Torah tells us how deeply the Sages knew that we cannot leave everything to divine intervention. God needs us to act so that He can act through us. Hence the profound wisdom of the Jewish tradition, that faith does not mean leaving everything to God. It is not what God does for us that changes the human situation. It is what we do for God.
- What is the difference between leadership and authority?
- Who is in a position of authority over you? Who is a leader in your life?
- Do you have any authority? Are you (or will you be) a leader?
Leadership as a Gift vs. Leadership as a Process
The second distinction worth making is between leadership as a gift – a talent, a set of characteristics – and leadership as a process through which we acquire the skills and experience it takes to influence others, and the qualities of character needed to be able to make space for others. Often in the Torah we see people grow into leadership rather than being singled out for it from birth. Genesis traces this out in different ways in relation to both Joseph and Judah. We see both grow. Only in Egypt, after many shifts of fortune, does Joseph become a leader, and only after several trials do we see Judah do likewise. Moses undergoes a series of personal crises in the book of Numbers before he emerges, in Deuteronomy, as the figure through which he is best known to tradition: Moshe Rabbeinu, the leader as teacher. Leadership is not a gift with which we are endowed at birth. It is something we acquire in the course of time, often after many setbacks, failures, and disappointments.
- Are leaders born or grow?
- Do you have the skills of leadership? Have you always had them?
- How can one learn to be a leader?
The Jewish People Needs You to Lead
The Jewish people right now needs leaders, people unafraid to face the challenges of today and build for tomorrow instead of, as so often happens, fighting the battles of yesterday. At the dawn of time, said the Rabbis, God showed Adam each generation and its searchers, each generation and its leaders – meaning, no two generations are alike. The world changes and leaders help us to adapt to the new without breaking faith with the old. I hope something in these essays moves you to take on one leadership challenge, however small, that you may not have done before.
Happiness is a life lived in the active mode. It comes not to those who complain, but to those who do. The greatest word uttered by the Jewish people at the holiest moment of their history, when they met God at the mountain and became His people, was Naaseh, “We will do.” Judaism is a religion of doing, and what we do together is greater than any of us could do alone. That is the challenge of leadership. Jews dared believe that together, and with heaven’s help, we can change the world. Daring greatly makes us great. There is no other way.
- Why does the Jewish people need leaders?
- What role can you play?
- Will you take up the call?
Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership
1. Leadership is Service
The highest accolade given to Moses is that he was “a servant of the Lord.” He is called by this description eighteen times in Tanach. “Do you think that I am offering you authority [serara]?” said Rabban Gamliel to two of his colleagues who declined invitations to take on leadership roles, “I am offering you the chance to serve [avdut].”
Robert Greenleaf, in his classic Servant Leadership, derives the principle from a Buddhist story by Herman Hesse. Yet the idea of leadership as service is fundamental to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and explains the otherwise inexplicable, that humility is the highest virtue of a leader (Moses, we are told, was “very humble, more so than anyone else on earth,” Num. 12:3). The idea that humility is a virtue would have sounded paradoxical to the ancient Greeks, for whom the megalopsychos, the great-souled man, was a figure of effortless superiority with a strong sense of his own importance.
Judaism entered the world as an inversion of the highly hierarchical societies of the ancient world symbolised by the ziggurats of Mesopotamia (the Tower of Babel) and the pyramids of Egypt, visible symbols of an order narrow at the top, broad at the base. The Jewish symbol, the menora, was the opposite: broad at the top, narrow at the base, as if to say that the leader must hold the honour of the people higher than his own.
Martin Luther King put it well: “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.” It is the cause we dedicate ourselves to and the people we serve that lift us, not our own high estimate of ourselves.
- What does it mean to be a ‘servant leader’?
- What other forms of leadership are there and why are they less ideal?
- Who should the focus of leadership be?
2. Leadership Begins by Taking Responsibility
When we see something wrong, we can complain or we can act. Complaining does not change the world. Acting does. Judaism is God’s call to action, summoning us to become His partners in the work of creation.
The opening chapters of Genesis are about failures of responsibility. Confronted by God with their sin, Adam blames Eve; Eve blames the serpent. Cain says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Even Noah, “righteous, perfect in his generations,” has no effect on his contemporaries.
By contrast, at the beginning of Exodus, Moses takes responsibility. When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he intervenes. When he sees two Israelites fighting, he intervenes. In Midian, when he sees shepherds abusing the daughters of Yitro, he intervenes. As an Israelite brought up as an Egyptian, he could have avoided each of these confrontations, yet he did not. He is the model of one who says: if no one else is prepared to act, I will.
Leading is about being active, not passive, choosing a direction, not simply following the person in front of us. Leaders do not complain, they do not blame others, nor do they wait for someone else to put it right. They act. They take responsibility. And they join with others, knowing that there are limits to what any individual can do. They engage and enlist those who feel, as they do, that there is something wrong that needs to be put right.
Leaders work with others. Only twice in the Torah does the phrase lo tov, “not good,” appear. The first is when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The second is when Yitro sees Moses leading alone and says, “What you are doing is not good” (Ex. 18:17). We cannot live alone. We cannot lead alone. Leadership is teamsmanship.
As a result, there is no one leadership style in Judaism. During the wilderness years there were three leaders: Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. Moses was close to God. Aaron was close to the people. Miriam led the women and sustained her two brothers. During the biblical era there were three different leadership roles: kings, priests, and prophets. The king was a political leader. The priest was a religious leader. The prophet was a visionary. So in Judaism, leadership is an emergent property of multiple roles and perspectives. Leaders work with people who are strong where they are weak. They do not feel threatened by people who are better at some things than they are. To the contrary, they feel enlarged by them. No one person can lead the Jewish people. Only together can we change the world.
- Where can you see leaders taking responsibility in the Torah?
- Why do we need different types of leaders?
- What do they all have in common?
3. Leadership is Vision-Driven
Before Moses could lead, he experienced a vision at the burning bush. There he was told his task: to lead the people from slavery to freedom. He had a destination: the land flowing with milk and honey. He had a double challenge: to persuade the Egyptians to let the Israelites go, and to persuade the Israelites to take the risk of going. The latter turned out to be as difficult as the former.
The book of Proverbs says, “Without a vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). The prophets were the world’s master visionaries, and their words inspire us still. In a lovely prophecy, Joel speaks about a time when “your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28).
Somehow Jews have always had visionaries to lift the people from catastrophe to hope: poets, philosophers, mystics – even the secular Zionists of the nineteenth century had something spiritual about their utopias. Joseph dreamed dreams. Jacob, alone at night, dreamed of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. We are the people who were never cured of our dreams.
Vision gives dignity to our aspirations. Throughout Tanach, only the bad people seek power for the sake of power. The good seek to avoid it. Moses insisted on his inadequacy. So did Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jonah tried to run away. Gideon, offered the chance to become Israel’s first king, said, “I will not rule over you nor will my son rule over you. God will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). It is the vision that matters, not the office, the power, the status, or the authority. Leaders are led by their vision of the future, and it is this that inspires others.
- Why is it vital a leader has vision?
- What was Moshe’s vision as a leader?
- Where does vision come from?
4. The Highest Form of Leadership is Teaching
If the supreme challenge of leadership is adaptive – getting people to embrace the need for change – then leading means educating: getting people to think and see in new ways. All three leadership roles in biblical Israel – king, priest, and prophet – had a teaching dimension. Every seven years, the king read the Torah to the people at a national gathering (Deut. 31:12). Malachi said about the priesthood, “The lips of a priest guard knowledge and men seek instruction from his mouth” (Mal. 2:7). The prophets were teachers to the people, guiding them through the wilderness of time.
The greatest moment in Moses’ career came in the last month of his life, when having led the people for forty years, he assembled them on the bank of the Jordan and delivered the speeches that constitute the book of Deuteronomy. There he rose to the greatest heights, telling the next generation of the challenges they would face in the Promised Land, setting forth his vision of the good society. That was when he became Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moses our teacher.” The great leaders are educators, teaching people to understand the meaning of their time.
It follows that they themselves must learn. Of the king, the Torah says that he 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’ successor, was 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.
This is so even in secular leadership. Gladstone had a library of more than thirty thousand books. He read more than twenty thousand of them. Gladstone and Disraeli were both prolific writers. Winston Churchill wrote some fifty books and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Visit David Ben-Gurion’s house in Tel Aviv and you will see that it is less a home than a library with twenty thousand books. Study makes the difference between the statesman and the politician, between the transformative leader and the manager.
- Why must a leader be a life-long learner?
- Why must a leader also be a teacher?
- Why of all the titles Moshe could have been known by do we know him as Moshe Rabbeinu?
3. A Leader Must Have Faith in the People they Lead
The Rabbis gave a remarkable interpretation of the passage where Moses says about the Israelites, “They will not believe in me” (Ex. 4:1). They said that God reprimanded Moses for those words, saying: “They are believers the children of believers, but in the end you will not believe” (Shabbat 97a). A leader must have faith in the people they lead.
Authoritarian leadership is contrary to the basic principles of Judaism. When Solomon’s son Rehoboam tried to lead high-handedly, the kingdom split in two (I Kings 12). When Rabban Gamliel asserted his authority over his colleague R. Yehoshua in a way that slighted his dignity, the disciples removed him from office (Brachot 27b). A leader who institutes a reign of fear is deemed to have no share in the World to Come. Leaders need not believe in themselves, but they do need to believe in those they lead.
- Why is it important for a leader to have faith in her/his followers?
- What political system demonstrates the most faith in a leader’s followers?
- Who in the Torah showed a lack of faith in the Jewish people?
6. Leaders Need a Sense of Timing and Pace
When Moses asks God to choose his successor, he says: “May the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, choose a man over the congregation who will go out before them and come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in” (Num. 27:16-17). Why the apparent repetition?
Moses is saying two things about leadership. A leader must lead from the front: they must “go out before them.” But a leader must not be so far out in front that, when turning around, they find no one is following. They must “lead them out,” meaning, they must carry people with him. They must go at a pace that people can bear.
One of Moses’ deepest frustrations was 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. Hence R. Tarfon’s great saying: “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Mishnah Avot 2:16).
Leadership involves a delicate balance between impatience and patience. Go too fast and people resist. Go too slow and they become complacent. Transformation takes time, often more than a single generation.
- What happens if a leader is too far ahead of his time?
- Why do people need progress to be slow and not instant?
- What happens if this means a leader cannot complete the task and get the people to the destination?
7. We are all Summoned to the Task
This is probably the deepest Jewish truth of all. The mission statement of the Jewish people – “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6) – surely means just this: a kingdom every one of whose members is in some sense a priest, and a nation every one of whose members is called on to be holy. We are called on to be a people of leaders.
At the heart of Jewish life is the principle formulated by the Rabbis as kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, which means, in effect, “All Jews are responsible for one another” (Shevuot 39a). As R. Shimon bar Yochai put it: “When one Jew is injured, all Jews feel the pain.” This means that when there is a problem within the Jewish world, none of us can sit back and say, “It’s not my responsibility.”
It is this more than anything else, I believe, that has led Jews to make a contribution to humanity out of all proportion to our numbers. We are a nation of activists. It also creates problems. It makes leadership within the Jewish community notoriously difficult. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first President, famously said that he was head of a nation of a million presidents. We say in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” but no Jew is a sheep.
The good news about the Jewish people is that we have many leaders. The bad news is that we have few followers. The first recorded words of a fellow Israelite to Moses were, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (Ex. 2:14). Moses had not even dreamed of becoming a leader and already his leadership was being criticised. This means that leading within the Jewish community is never less than challenging. But that is how it is: according to the effort, said the Sages, is the reward (Mishnah Avot 5:23).
- Who can be a leader?
- Can there be too many leaders?
- Can you be a leader and a follower at the same time?
Further videos to watch
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on Jewish Leadership (6 min video)
- On Being a Jewish Leader (2 min clip where he tells the story of his call to leadership)
- “He Created Leaders” (3 min video about the Lubavitcher Rebbe as a great leader)
- Leadership is Jewish Responsibility (1.30 min clip from a video for Olami Impact Leaders Forum)
- Lessons in Leadership (15 min Q&A video)
- Highlights from Rabbi Sacks’ “In Conversation with…” Prof. Ron Heifetz on Jewish Leadership (5 highlight videos)
- Leadership (A Covenant & Conversation video for the parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech)
- Message for Hillel Global Leaders Forum 2012 (17 min)
- Pacing Change (A Covenant & Conversation video for the parshat Pinchas)
- Rabbi Sacks on the 25th yahrtzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
- The Story We Tell (a Pesach-themed video)
- Taking it Personally (A Covenant & Conversation video for the parshat Korach)
- Two Types of Leadership (A Covenant & Conversation video for the parshat Beha’alotecha)
- Leadership Means Making Space (A Covenant & Conversation video for the parshat Tetzaveh)
- The Challenge of Jewish Leadership (A Covenant & Conversation video for the parshat Shemot)
Further articles to read
- This Covenant & Conversation cycle was leadership-themed, finding a message from each parsha on leadership. This can also be found in published form in the volume Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, published by Maggid Books.
- Vision-Driven Leadership in the 21st Century: An Analysis of The Pew Report (45 minute video and audio clips)
- Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership
- In a time of trouble we look to Moses for wise leadership (Credo, 28th May, 2012)
- That quiet leadership of influence seeks no power but it changes lives (Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 29th December, 2011)
- The team is bigger than the players; the game is bigger than the team (Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 13th July, 2018)
- Baroness Thatcher was a Parliamentary Boadicea (Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 17th April, 2013)
- Doctor who urged disabled to choose life (Credo, 22nd September, 2012)
- Seeking the good of those you serve (Credo, 18th August, 2012)
- We have to learn to live responsibly for the sake of the long term future (Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 11th June, 2010)
- Leadership is not about ruling people, but about serving people (Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 7th June, 2008)
Rabbi Sacks dedicated an entire cycle of Covenant & Conversation (his weekly essays on the Parsha) to the topic of leadership. This was subsequently published in book form under the title Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible by Maggid books. The following quotes, one from each parsha, are from this leadership series of parsha essays.
A leader is one who takes responsibility. Leadership is born when we become active rather than passive, when we do not wait for someone else to act because perhaps there is no one else – at least not here, not now. When bad things happen, some avert their eyes. Some wait for others to act. Some blame others for failing to act. Some simply complain. But there are people who say, “If something is wrong, let me be among the first to put it right.” They are the leaders. They are the ones who make a difference in their lifetimes. They are the ones who make ours a better world.Bereishit: Taking Responsibility
It is not enough to be righteous if that means turning our backs on a society that is guilty of wrongdoing. We must take a stand. We must protest. We must register dissent even if the probability of changing minds is small. That is because the moral life is a life we share with others. We are, in some sense, responsible for the society of which we are a part. It is not enough to be good. We must encourage others to be good. There are times when each of us must lead.Noach: Righteousness is not Leadership
Leaders lead. That does not mean to say that they do not follow. But what they follow is different from what most people follow. They do not conform for the sake of conforming. They do not do what others do merely because others are doing it. They follow an inner voice, a call. They have a vision, not of what is, but of what might be. They think outside the box. They march to a different tune.Lech Lecha: The Courage Not to Conform
Abraham was not a conventional leader. He did not rule a nation. There was as yet no nation for him to lead. But he was the role model of leadership as Judaism understands it. He took responsibility. He acted; he did not wait for others to act.Vayera: Answering the Call
Leaders see the destination, begin the journey, and leave behind them those who will continue it. That is enough to endow a life with immortality.Chayei Sarah: Beginning the Journey
Parents and leaders must establish a culture in which honest, open, respectful communication takes place, one that involves not just speaking but also listening.Toldot: Communication Matters
The ability to survive and to recover is part of what it takes to be a leader. It is the willingness to live a life of risks that makes such individuals different from others… To try, to fall, to fear, and yet to keep going: that is what it takes to be a leader.Vayetse: Light in Dark Times
Managing the conflicts that affect every human group is the work of the leader – and if the leader is not sure of and confident in his or her identity, the conflicts will persist… they must accept that some people will like them and what they stand for while others will not; they must understand that it is better to seek the respect of some than the popularity of all. This may involve a lifetime of struggle, but the outcome is an immense strength. No one is stronger than the person who knows who and what he is.Vayishlach: Be Thyself
People need encouragement if they are to lead. It is fascinating to contrast the hesitant Reuben with the confident – even overconfident – Joseph, loved and favoured by his father. If we want our children to have the confidence to act when action is needed, then we have to empower, encourage, and praise them.Vayeshev: How Praise Can Empower
Dream dreams, understand and articulate the dreams of others, and find ways of turning a dream into a reality – these three gifts are leadership, the Joseph way.Mikketz: Three Approaches to Dreams
The stories of Judah and his descendant David tell us that what marks a leader is not necessarily perfect righteousness. It is the ability to admit mistakes, to learn from them and grow from them… A leader is one who, though he may stumble and fall, arises more honest, humble, and courageous than he was before.Vayigash: The Unexpected Leader
This willingness to let events work themselves out in accordance with providence, this understanding that we are at best no more than co-authors of our lives, allowed Joseph to survive without resentment about the past or despair in the face of the future. Trust in God gave him immense strength, which is what a leader needs if he is to dare greatly.Vayechi: Moving Forwards
Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, Tzippora, and Bitya were leaders not because of any official position they held. They were leaders because they had courage and conscience. They refused to be intimidated by power or defeated by circumstance. They were the real heroes of the Exodus. Their courage is still a source of inspiration today.Shemot: Women as Leaders
The great human beings are not those who never fail. They are those who survive failure, who keep on going, who refuse to be defeated, who never give up or give in. They keep trying. They learn from every mistake. They treat failure as a learning experience. And from every refusal to be defeated, they become stronger, wiser, and more determined.Vaera: Overcoming Setbacks
Moses was the greatest leader because he thought further ahead than anyone else. He knew that real change in human behaviour is the work of many generations. Therefore we must place as our highest priority educating our children in our ideals so that what we begin they will continue until the world changes because we have changed.Bo: The Far Horizon
It is the task of a leader to empower, but it is also his or her task to inspire. That is what Moses did when, at the top of a hill, in full sight of the people, he raised his hands and his staff to heaven. When they saw this, the people knew they could prevail.Beshallach: Looking Up
Jews were the people who did not leave leadership to a single individual, however holy or exalted, or to an elite. Instead, every one of them was expected to be both a prince and a servant; that is to say, every one of them was called on to be a leader. Never was leadership more profoundly democratised… To be a Jew is to be called on to lead.Yitro: A Nation of Leaders
That is how we must lead if we want people to come with us, giving of their best. There must be a vision to inspire us, telling us why we should do what we are asked to do. There must be a narrative: this is what happened, this is who we are, and this is why the vision is so important to us. Then there must be the law, the code, the fastidious attention to detail, that allow us to translate vision into reality and turn the pain of the past into the blessings of the future. That extraordinary combination, to be found in almost no other law code, is what gives Torah its enduring power. It is a model for all who seek to lead people to greatness.Mishpatim: Vision and Details
Leaders do not do the work on behalf of the people. They teach people how to do the work themselves. It is not what God does for us but what we do for God that allows us to reach dignity and responsibility.Terumah: The Home We Build Together
The essential lesson of the Torah is that leadership can never be confined to one class or role. It must always be distributed and divided… Leadership must always, I believe, be like this. Every team must be made up of people with different roles, strengths, temperaments, and perspectives. They must always be open to criticism and they must always be on the alert against groupthink. The glory of Judaism is its insistence that only in heaven is there one commanding voice. Down here on earth, no individual may ever hold a monopoly of leadership. Out of the clash of perspectives – king, priest, and prophet – comes something larger than any single role or individual could achieve.Tetzaveh: The Counterpoint of Leadership
The fact that Aaron was not a leader from the same mould as Moses does not mean that he was a failure. It means that he was made for a different kind of role. There are times when you need someone with the courage to stand against the crowd, others when you need a peacemaker. Moses and Aaron were different types. Aaron failed when he was called on to be a Moses, but he became a great leader in his own right in a different capacity. Aaron and Moses complemented one another. No one person can do everything.Ki Tissa: How Leaders Fail
Team building, even after a disaster like the Golden Calf, is neither a mystery nor a miracle. It is done by setting the group a task, one that speaks to their passions and one no subsection of the group can achieve alone. It must be constructive. Every member of the group must be able to make a unique contribution and then feel that it has been valued. Each must be able to say with pride: I helped make this. That is what Moses understood and did. He knew: if you want to build a team, create a team that builds.Vayakhel: Team Building
If leaders are to bring out the best in those they lead, they must give them the chance to show they are capable of great things, and then they must celebrate their achievements.Pekudei: Celebrate
Leadership demands two kinds of courage: the strength to take a risk, and the humility to admit when a risk fails.Vayikra: The Sins of a Leader
A leader should never try to be all things to all people. A leader should be content to be what they are. Leaders must have the strength to know what they cannot be if they are to have the courage to be themselves.Tzav: On Not Trying to Be What You Are Not
People do not become leaders because they are great. They become great because they are willing to serve as leaders. It does not matter that we think ourselves inadequate. So did Moses. So did Aaron. What matters is the willingness, when challenge calls, to say Hineni, “Here I am.”Shemini: Reticence vs. Impetuosity
To put it at its simplest: as we behave to others so God behaves to us. Do not expect God to be kind to those who are unkind to their fellow humans. Leaders have a responsibility to reflect those values – to react appropriately to lashon hara and create environments in which malicious speech is not tolerated.Tazria: The Price of Free Speech
Praise, and how we administer it, is a fundamental element in leadership of any kind. Recognising the good in people and saying so, we help bring people’s potential to fruition.Metzora: How to Praise
Turning ideals into codes of action that shape habits of the heart is what Judaism and leadership are about. Never lose the inspiration of the prophets, but never lose, either, the routines that turn ideals into acts and dreams into achieved reality.Acharei Mot: Sprints and Marathons
Great leadership happens when there is strong and independently minded followership. Hence, when it comes to constructive criticism, a disciple may challenge a teacher and a prophet may reprimand a king.Kedoshim: Followership
God trusted us enough to make us His ambassadors to an often faithless, brutal world. The choice is ours. Will our lives be a Kiddush Hashem, or, God forbid, the opposite?… A great leader has the responsibility to both be an ambassador and inspire his or her people to be ambassadors as well.Emor: On Not Being Afraid of Greatness
The leadership challenge of Parshat Behar is: count the years, not the days. Keep faith with the past but keep your eyes firmly fixed on the future.Behar: Think Long
That is what I mean by the strange, seemingly self-contradictory idea I have argued throughout these essays: that we are all called on to be leaders. Surely this cannot be so: if everyone is a leader, then no one is. If everyone leads, who is left to follow?
The concept that resolves the contradiction is covenant. Leadership is, I have argued, the acceptance of responsibility. Therefore if we are all responsible for one another, we are all called on to be leaders, each within our sphere of influence – be it within the family, the community, the organisation, or a larger grouping still.Bechukotai: “We the People”
A Jewish leader has to respect individuals. They must “lift their heads.” However large the group you lead, you must always communicate the value you place on everyone, including those others exclude: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger… It is hard to lead a nation of individuals, but this is the most challenging, empowering, inspiring leadership of all.Bamidbar: Leading a Nation of Individuals
Leaders need to be aware of the perils of envy, especially within the people they lead… A leader must be humble… Honour everyone equally. Pay special attention to potentially disaffected groups. Make each feel valued. Give everyone a moment in the limelight, if only in a ceremonial way. Set a personal example of humility. Make it clear to all that leadership is service, not a form of status. Find ways in which those with a particular passion can express it, and ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute.Naso: The Politics of Envy
Not all of us have power, but we all have influence. That is why we can each be a leader. The most important forms of leadership come not with position, title, or robes of office, not with prestige and power, but with the willingness to work with others to achieve what we cannot do alone; to speak, to listen, to teach, to learn, to treat other people’s views with respect even if they disagree with us; to explain patiently and cogently why we believe what we believe and do what we do; to encourage others, praise their best endeavours, and challenge them to do better still. Always choose influence rather than power. It helps change people into people who can change the world.Beha’alotecha: Power or Influence?
Leaders give people confidence by teaching them to look up. We are not grasshoppers unless we think we are.Shelach Lecha: Confidence
In a social order in which everyone has equal dignity in the eyes of Heaven, a leader does not stand above the people. He serves the people, and he serves God. The great symbol of biblical Israel, the menora, is an inverted pyramid or ziggurat, broad at the top, narrow at the base. The greatest leader is therefore the most humble. “Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on earth” (Num. 12:3). The name given to this is servant leadership, and its origin is in the Torah.Korach: Servant Leadership
Leaders need three kinds of support: (1) allies who will fight alongside them, (2) troops or teams to whom they can delegate, and (3) a soulmate or soulmates to whom they can confide their doubts and fears, who will listen without an agenda other than being a supportive presence, and who will give them the courage, confidence, and sheer resilience to carry on.Chukat: Miriam, Moses’ Friend
Leadership without loyalty is not leadership. Skills alone cannot substitute for the moral qualities that make people follow those who demonstrate them. We follow those we trust, because they have acted so as to earn our trust. That was what made Moses the great leader Balaam might have been but never was. Always be loyal to the people you lead.Balak: Leadership and Loyalty
Respect for diversity, care for the lowly and powerless as well as the powerful and great, and a willingness to go no faster than people can bear – these are three essential attributes of a leader, as Moses knew from experience, and as Joshua learned through his long apprenticeship to the great man himself.Pinchas: Lessons of a Leader
One of the hardest tasks of leaders – from prime ministers to parents – is conflict resolution. Yet it is also the most vital. Where there is leadership, there is long-term cohesiveness within the group, whatever the short-term problems. Where there is a lack of leadership – where leaders lack authority, grace, generosity of spirit, or the ability to respect positions other than their own – then there is divisiveness, rancour, back-biting, resentment, internal politics, and a lack of trust. Leaders are people who put the interests of the group above those of any subsection of the group. They care for, and inspire others to care for, the common good.Matot: Conflict Resolution
Great leaders are great not just because they care for their own people – everyone except a self-hater does that – but because they care for humanity. That is what gives their devotion to their own people its dignity and moral strength. To be an agent of hope, to love the people you lead, and to widen their horizons to embrace humanity as a whole – that is the kind of leadership that gives people the ability to recover from crisis and move on. It is what made Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah three of the greatest leaders of all time.Masei: Leadership at a Time of Crisis
Teachers are the unacknowledged builders of the future, and if a leader seeks to make lasting change, they must follow in the footsteps of Moses and become an educator. The leader as teacher – using influence rather than power, spiritual and intellectual authority rather than coercive force – was one of the greatest contributions Judaism ever made to the moral horizons of humankind.Devarim: The Leader as Teacher
Jews have had an influence out of all proportion to their numbers because we are all called on to be leaders, to take responsibility, to contribute, to make a difference to the lives of others, to bring the Divine Presence into the world. Precisely because we are small, we are each summoned to greatness.Va’etchanan: The Fewest of All Peoples
Why would God choose a man who found it hard to speak to lead the Jewish people? Perhaps because one who cannot speak learns how to listen. A leader is one who knows how to listen: to the unspoken cry of others and to the still, small voice of God.Eikev: To Lead Is to Listen
One of the gifts of great leaders, and one from which each of us can learn, is that they frame reality for the group. They define its state. They specify its aims. They articulate its choices. They tell us where we are and where we are going in a way no satellite navigation system could. They show us the map and the destination, and help us see why we should choose this route and not that. That is one of their most magisterial roles, and no one did it more powerfully than Moses in the book of Deuteronomy.Re’eh: Defining Reality
Leaders learn. They read. They study. They take time to familiarise themselves with the world of ideas. Only thus do they gain the perspective to be able to see further and clearer than others. To be a Jewish leader means spending time to study both Torah and chochmah: chochmah to understand the world as it is, Torah to understand the world as it ought to be. Leaders should never stop learning. That is how they grow and teach others to grow with them.Shoftim: Learning and Leadership
Leadership at its highest transforms those who exercise it and those who are influenced by it. The great leaders make people better, kinder, nobler than they would otherwise be… A good leader knows: hate the sin but not the sinner. Do not forget the past but do not be held captive by it. Be willing to fight your enemies but never allow yourself to be defined by them or become like them. Learn to love and forgive. Acknowledge the evil men do, but stay focused on the good that is in our power to do. Only thus do we raise the moral sights of humankind and help redeem the world we share.Ki Teitse: Against Hate
By making the Israelites a nation of storytellers, Moses helped turn them into a people bound by collective responsibility – to one another, to the past and future, and to God. By framing a narrative that successive generations would make their own and teach to their children, Moses turned Jews into a nation of leaders.Ki Tavo: A Nation of Storytellers
To be a leader, you do not need a crown or robes of office. All you need to do is to write your chapter in the story, do deeds that heal some of the pain of this world, and act so that others become a little better for having known you. Live so that, through you, our ancient covenant with God is renewed in the only way that matters: in life. Moses’ last testament to us at the very end of his days, when his mind might so easily have turned to death, was: choose life.Nitzavim: Defeating Death
Leadership is not simple. It is complex because it involves people and people are complex. You have to listen, and you have to lead. You have to strive for consensus but ultimately, if there is none, you must take the risk of deciding.Vayelech: Consensus or Command?
The first humans lost paradise when they sought to hide from responsibility. We will only ever regain it if we accept responsibility and become a nation of leaders, each respecting and making space for those not like us… The deepest mystery of all is not our faith in God but God’s faith in us. May that faith sustain us as we heed the call to responsibility and take the risk of healing some of the needless wounds of an injured but still wondrous world.Ha’azinu: A Leader’s Call to Responsibility
Without passion you cannot be a transformative leader. Unless you yourself are inspired you cannot inspire others. Moses never lost the vision of his first encounter with God at the bush that burned but was not consumed. That is how I see Moses: as the man who burned but was not consumed. So long as that vision stayed with him, as it did until the end of his life, he remained full of energy.Vezot Habracha: Staying Young
The following books on leadership were often quoted and referenced by Rabbi Sacks in his writings on leadership:
- Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader (New York: Basic Books, 1989).
- Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001).
- Jim Collins, Great by Choice, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)
- Max De Pree, Leadership Is an Art (New York: Doubleday, 1989).
- Carol Dweck, Mindset (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).
- Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).
- Howard Gardner in collaboration with Emma Laskin, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
- Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008).
- Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002)
- Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).
- Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1994).
- Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).
- Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).
- James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper, 1978).
- Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (New York: Portfolio, 2009).
The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the Leadership ideas and resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This lesson plan will focus solely on one particular idea within the thought of Rabbi Sacks. There are many other themes found in this unit of resources which would take more classroom-time to explore with your students.
Download our 60-minute class for high-school aged students.
Bet Nidrash on Leadership
Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash” is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us.
Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.
Encourage your students to leave the classroom having explored these leadership themes and use what they have learned in practice in the outside world, by taking on leadership roles within the school community, the neighbourhood, the Jewish community, and the wider community.
Ask them to keep a Leadership Journal where they record their experiences, trials, tribulations, and triumphs.
What principles from Rabbi’s Sacks’ list of 7 can they apply to their own experience? What additional key principles have they learned from they own experience which they may wish to add to this list?