Leadership: The Jewish Take

What are the characteristics of a good leader?

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This is why since the time of Moses and Joshua, Judaism has insisted that truly effective leadership must include the identification, preparation and training of the next generation. To be sure, it is difficult for those ensconced in power to think beyond themselves. The rabbis understand this basic principle. “It is easy to go up to a dais,” they taught, “tough to come down” (Yalkut, Va’ethannan, 845). Nevertheless, only those who transcend their own agendas in order to serve the long-term needs of the people meet Judaism’s test of effective leadership.

Humility

While conventional wisdom associates leadership with self-assurance, single-minded determination, bravado, and certainty, Jewish sources offer a dramatically different view, one which identifies humility as the essential attribute of effective leaders. Humility, the recognition of one’s limitations regardless of position, is a natural consequence of Judaism’s worldview that only God has absolute authority, and that human leaders, however powerful, can never be above the law.

Jewish sources insist that the arrogance and inflated sense of self, often found in people with power, are, in fact, antithetical to effective leadership. While acknowledging the unparalleled majesty of the king, for example, Moses Maimonides insisted that only when the sovereign is able to “cultivate a humble and lowly spirit … and deal graciously and compassionately with the small and the great” would his leadership be successful (Mishneh Torah, Law of Kings). Despite the popular notion, therefore, humility is not a sign ofweak leadership. Indeed, the Torah and later Jewish sources insist that the most effective of all leaders--Moses--was, at the same time, the most humble. Rather than precluding vision, tenacity and decisiveness, humility is essential for their realization. In Judaism, exaggerated claims and self-aggrandizing speech are anathema to good leadership.

Behavior, Not Position

The Hebrew word for leadership is manhigut. It derives from the root found in the word “behavior.” For Judaism, effective leadership is not about position; it is about behavior and action. The rabbis were clear: one can lead effectively without holding a title or an office, so long as one behaves appropriately. “Be rather a tail to lions than a head to foxes,” they insisted (Avot 4:20). In evaluating those who would be our leaders then, Judaism suggests that we would do well to consider their behaviors, not their resumes or their press statements. Do they, for example:

- Think of themselves as humble servants of the people, or are they egocentric rulers seeking to maximize the perquisites of power?

- Demonstrate an understanding that power must be restrained and shared, lest it be abused, even by good people?

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Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the Dean of Continuing Education & Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Spertus College in Chicago. Prior to joining Spertus, he served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Columbus Jewish Federation. He is the author of The Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership (Edwin Mellen), and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership (Rowman and Littlefield).