What Makes A Real Leader?
Updated: Mar 22
Regardless of who you voted for (if you did vote) in this past election, I think it is safe to say that no one felt his or her candidate was the ideal leader. In fact, I think most people saw this election as a new low for our country.
Yet just because society has set the bar low for our political leaders doesn’t mean we can’t set the bar high for our personal role models. In comparing the candidates’ personalities to the Jewish qualities of leadership, it is obvious that we must look elsewhere for leaders to emulate in our own lives. Fortunately, the Jewish world has many great role models and some outstanding leaders of the generation.
So what does the ideal leader possess, according to the Torah? The Rambam, a famous Spanish commentator from the 12th century, lays out the qualifications: “A Jewish leader must be a scholar in both Torah and secular wisdom, God-fearing, non-materialistic (as a guard against bribes), a seeker of truth, mitzvah observant (i.e. practices what he preaches), and modest.”
As oppose to the campaign finance or modern day bribes that we see today, the Talmud suggests that a leader shouldn’t take any money from his community, so that they don’t “own” him or taint his integrity. In addition, in the Jewish world, rather than asserting one’s desire to be a leader, one is chosen to be a leader because of his fine character and judgment.”
For instance, the greatest leader in Jewish history, Moses, is described in the Torah as “exceedingly humble.” Moses didn’t want to be a leader. When G-d asked Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moses protested, asking “Who am I that I should take the Jews out of Egypt?!” (Exodus 3:11)
In modern times too, the greatest leaders in Jewish history reluctantly accepted their roles. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest Torah leaders of the last generation wrote, “I would not have volunteered for the job of leading the Jewish people. But since this is the role that God has selected for me, I have no choice but to accept it.”
The same is true with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. After the previous Rebbe, his father in law, passed away, the Lubavitcher Rebbe strongly resisted accepting the role of Rebbe for months. He was even quoted as saying, “What do you suppose? That Mendel Schneerson is a Rebbe?” This, from a man who had, and still has, thousands upon thousands of followers.
So far, the leaders we are describing are spiritual leaders, as oppose to purely political leaders. It is interesting to note that the Torah allows political appointees like kings, but does not mandate that the Jewish people have a king. In fact, some Biblical commentators even consider kings to be “a concession to human frailty” and “a punishment.” Thus, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Judaism is at best ambivalent about monarchy, that is to say, about leadership-as-power,” but rather encourages leadership-as-teaching.
True leaders from a Jewish perspective, says Rabbi Sacks, are meant to teach us, not rule over us. In this way, they help us grow into our best selves. To be the most effective teachers, Jewish leaders must not only convey wisdom, but must also embody that wisdom themselves.
How different is the image of a Jewish leader to the “leaders” presented in this past election? It is a reminder to us that we truly live in exile.
Yet there is hope. Our Sages teach, “[I]n a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.” When there is a lack of leaders, one must step up and be a leader. We can’t depend on one person to swoop in and make it all better. We must take responsibility for our lives and the lives of those around us.
It doesn’t matter if one isn’t “exceedingly humble” like Moses or other great Jewish leaders. “If the times of location suffer from spiritual decline and no one more qualified is available, he should step into that leadership role.” Further, if one cannot find a friend or mentor to teach him and give constructive criticism, “he should strive to be his own leader,” and teach himself.
Though the American political community may be devoid of role models, the Jewish world is filled with them. If you are not connected with a good, Jewish role model, this should be a top priority. It doesn’t have to be a Rabbi or Rebbetzin; it can be anyone that you look up to and learn from.
In the meantime, become a leader for yourself and others. Every one of us can be a leader and someone to emulate. After all, we have the Torah to guide us, which is filled with wisdom and tools for self-development.
Book Suggestions, A Glimpse Into The Lives of Great Jewish Leaders:
Rebbe (A great biography on the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, the Rebbe of Chabad)
A Tzaddik In Our Time: The Left of Rabbi Aryeh Levin (A biography of the man who was known as the “Tzaddik [Righteous Man] of Jerusalem.”)
Emunah With Love and Chicken Soup (My teacher Sara Yoheved Rigler’s new book on Rebbetzin Henny Machlis zt”l)
 Introduction, “Iggress Moshe.”
 Avos 2:6.
 Artscroll Pirkei Avos, 2:6 Commentary, p. 80.
 Id. The Torah teaches that a true friend is one who pushes you to grow into your best self. Avos 1:6.