Lessons in Leadership

Q&A for Harvard Business School

Rabbi Sacks was recently asked some questions on the subject of leadership by a British student on the Executive Education Programme at the Harvard Business School. The questions focussed on his own leadership journey and the lessons he learnt along the way. The video, originally intended just to help this one student with an assignment, ended up being shown to every student on the course. So we decided to share it with you here, too.

In this video, Rabbi Sacks answers the following questions:

  • What was the defining moment in your leadership journey?
  • What are your values, principles and boundaries?
  • How did you discover your strengths and passions?
  • How do you build an integrated life?
  • How do you build a team?
  • What difference have you sought to make in the world?
  • What have you learnt about leadership? 

What was the defining moment in your leadership journey?

For me, the defining moment was the reaction to the publication of my book The Dignity of Difference, which was my response to 9/11. And it was published on the first anniversary of 9/11. I had felt that 9/11 was going to shape the future of the world, and that, as an act of religiously motivated violence, we had to recognise the potential for violence in religions and respond to that. So I wrote this very, very strong book, perhaps too strong, called The Dignity of Difference, in which I argued that the great religions had to make space for one another.

This was a radical thing to say, and for many of my rabbinical colleagues, not only in Britain, but around the world, it was simply too radical. And the reaction was quite sharp and difficult. In essence, I, as a Chief Rabbi, as defender of the faith, was accused of… really, I suppose one has to say, heresy. Which is an awkward position to be in if you are defender of the faith. And the attacks were so strong and so widespread that I reached a point of what I can probably call black despair. I was not able to see a road from here to there. And that’s when I had the revelation, as near as I’ll come to hearing a Voice from Heaven, saying “Do you realise that if you resign over this, if you allow yourself to be defeated, it won’t be you who is defeated, it will be everyone whoever put their faith in you.” And that was when I realised that leadership is not primarily about the leader. It’s about keeping faith with everyone who asked you to lead.

And at that moment, the whole tenor of my life changed. It stopped being personal. It was not about me. It was about ideals and it was about people, and about not letting them down. And having changed direction, 180-degrees, and no longer seeing this as an attack on me personally, I acquired a strength which I’d never had before and has never left me since. And that was when I realised, there are defining moments, and either you let them defeat you, or you refuse to let them defeat you. And Nietzsche rightly said, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So that for me, was the defining moment.

What are your values, principles and boundaries, and how do you maintain them?

My values, principles, and boundaries, actually had a very concrete shape because, believe it or not, there was an age before smartphones, and that age was dominated by something called the Filofax, and that is what I used to have. And so on the first page of my Filofax… which I wrote, and the date is here, 21st August 1991, that is 10 days before I became Chief Rabbi. I wrote my life principles:

  • To have been known as a Jewish leader who took seriously love of God and love of human beings.
  • To have done something concrete to promote values like spirituality and altruism.
  • To have raised respect for Judaism among both Jews and the wider world.
  • To have made people feel and exercise the full range of their possibilities.

Now, if you put those in a place so that you can’t avoid seeing them at the start of every day, and for that matter at the end of every day, it keeps you on track. Because Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister in the late 50s, quite rightly, when asked what were the biggest problems of being Prime Minister, replied “Events, dear boy. Events.”

So any leader is going to be buffeted by cross-winds, by the sheer force of events. And unless you remember, and do so daily, what your principles and objectives actually are. You will be buffeted.

So, that’s how I kept them going.
How did you discover your strengths and passions?

How did I discover my strengths and passions? Well, of course there’s a negative way of discovering them, when people tell you stuff that you really don’t want to hear. So a lot of people used to tell me, “You know, Sacks, you’re just not a people-person.” Which is problematic if you’re a religious leader. So I realised that was not one of my great strengths. And I discovered that it turned out to be a lot easier speaking to a thousand people, than speaking to three. Because you can speak to a thousand people, even if you’re not a “people-person”. So that was when I discovered that things like public speaking and writing were my strengths much more so than the small group interactions. Because I’m just not a great people-person.

And then sometimes people just tell you things. I remember a guy who I had almost no interactions with over the years, but just let slip said, “Sacks, you have a passion for ideas.” And I suddenly said, “Yeah, that’s it.” I never realised that before. I have a passion for ideas. So sometimes people will tell you in a positive way, sometimes they’ll tell you in a negative way. And every time they tell you something in a negative way, the real art is to then choose to work with people who are strong where you are weak.

So being not a great people-person, I tried to build teams that had great “people-people” at the top of them. And that’s basically how you do it by critical reflection, by listening hard, by seeing your unexpected successes, and realising that your failures are just not really failures, they’re just little nudges from heaven or from earth, saying, “You’re in the wrong territory. Get back to where you really can do what you have to do.”

How do you build an integrated life?

I have to say that is one of my big weaknesses. Because I always took seriously that couplet from the poet, W.B. Yeats, “The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work.” And I was a kind of perfection-of-the-work type of person. Not a perfection-of-the-life type person. So, to take a crazy, extreme example, I don’t think you would have invited Beethoven for dinner. I don’t think he had much in the way of small talk. Or Nietzsche for that matter. People who are very focused on the work, they’re not great at the life. So you do certain things when that happens.

Number one, you marry somebody who has a bigger heart than you have. So, Elaine was always the person that was my good conscience, who said, “I know you don’t want to do it, but that’s a family, that’s a friend. You’ve got to do it.” And when you know that you’re married to somebody with a bigger heart than you, they help you to do that correct life-balance.

The second thing of course is religious ritual. I mean, Judaism has this wonderful thing called Shabbat where you can’t write, you can’t watch the television, and you can’t work. So you spend time with family, with community, praying, thanking God and all the rest of it. That is, I think, the oldest and best time-management seminar in history. So the Sabbath really forces you to develop that life-work balance.

And the third thing is, you learn pretty much from your kids. I’ve always assumed that children are there to teach, not to be taught. And I was always inspired by them and I saw how they built integrated lives. And I think I learnt from them.
How do you build a team?

Well, rule one, I’ve already suggested is, recognise where you’re weak and surround yourself by people who are strong in those areas. So for me, that was getting somebody who was a really good people-person, somebody who could handle organisation without bursting into tears. (The kind of thing that I tend to do when having to do anything practical.) And it’s just incredibly supportive and life-enhancing when you’re surrounded by people who are just better than you at all sorts of things.

Number two, the most important thing in building a team is empowering them to say the single most important word in the human vocabulary, which is “No.” I.e., “Not a good idea, Rabbi Sacks.” Or as Sir Humphrey in Yes, Prime Minister used to put it “Courageous, Rabbi Sacks.” Which is the nice way of saying the same thing. Lie down until the moment passes. Empower your team to step in and stop you making the big mistakes.

And number three, build a team of people whose ethical standards are as high as, or higher, than yours. And they will force you to be guided by the better angels of your nature. And I’m happy to say that that’s exactly the kind of teams that we’ve built. And the current one, which is the best that I have ever had.
What difference have you sought to make in the world?

The difference I sought to make in the world was to make Judaism speak to people who are in the world. Because it’s quite easy being religious in a house of worship, in a synagogue, a church, or even actually at home, or in the school. But when you’re out there in the marketplace, how do you retain those really strong values?

And secondly, the challenge that came from university. I was studying philosophy at a time when there were virtually no philosophers who were religious believers, at least none who were prepared publicly to confess to that. So the intellectual challenges were real.

So, how do you make Judaism speak to people in those worlds? The world of academic life, the world of the economy. And in the end, I realised that to do that credibly, I had to actually go into the world myself, whether it was broadcasting for the BBC or writing for the Times. And getting a little “street cred” in the world itself, which actually then broadened the mission. And I found myself being asked by politicians and people like that to advise them on their issues. Which forced me to widen my boundaries.

So, I think you take any road, you may well find yourself without deviating from that road, driving into landscapes that are much bigger than you ever thought the road would take you to. And that’s really how it’s changed.
What have you learnt about leadership?

What did I learn about leadership that I’d like to hand on to others? Number one was the thing that made me a leader in the first place. I never dreamt of being a leader, it was the last thing on my list of life objectives. But there were times, critical moments in my life, when I met people who believed in me much more than I believed in myself. And that actually inspired me and empowered me to go and become a leader myself, which I’d never really wanted to do. So that is a good principle, which has two implications.

Number one, seek out the people who may show you your potential. And do the same for others. If you find people with that potential, communicate to them your belief in them. Which is probably the most empowering and inspiring thing you can do.

Number two, be aware that all the difficulties and all the pain are ways of making your life richer and more meaningful. And you yourself a bigger and stronger human being than you would ever have been otherwise. That was the thrust of the great Theodore Roosevelt speech on leadership. It’s the human being in the arena who actually knows the toil and the tears and the sweat. And so, I would say what I learned is that the pain is the gain in a very real sense.

And thirdly, the surprise discovery that you actually had something you never believed you had. For me, the biggest surprise was persistence. I was the kind of guy who used to say, “If at first you don’t succeed, give up.” That’s fine if you’re only doing things for your own sake, but if you’re a leader you can’t give up. And you suddenly discover you have a persistence that you didn’t know you had.

So keep going, inspire others, and continue to stay true to your basic principles. And that way you may still have some pretty rocky times, but you will reach your destination and bring a lot of other people with you.