After years of research and preparation, James had finally secured a slot to speak at the prestigious international physics conference. He would be presenting his studies in the field of quantum mechanics and was looking forward to the largest scale event of his life. He had never before presented at an official conference, let alone one of such prestige. It had taken every ounce of courage within him to even submit his work to such an event, and he knew that a successful lecture could change the trajectory of his career.
When the day of the presentation arrived, James woke up feeling nervous but excited. He was about to present his life’s work before a crowd of the foremost researchers in his field. After preparing his lecture notes carefully, he strode into the conference room. The room was completely empty. “Strange,” he thought. “Maybe the previous sessions went overtime...” He briefly reviewed his notes and then looked down at his watch again. It was now five minutes past the start time, and not a single person had shown up. A bead of sweat rolled down his neck as he weighed his options. “Maybe this was all for nothing!” he thought anxiously. “Maybe I should just pack up and leave!”
“No, just give it another minute or so,” a calmer voice in the back of his head insisted.
Just then, an elegant looking gentleman, probably in his mid-60s, walked into the room. He slowly strolled to the front row and took a seat, focusing his piercing blue eyes on James.
Slightly taken aback, James forced a smile and began his lecture, surprised by how engaged his single audience member was. Upon concluding his speech, the man came over and thanked James profusely for sharing such an enlightening presentation. “Wow! I’ve been to countless conferences, but this was the greatest presentation I have ever been privileged to hear! You have a bright future ahead of you, son. I wish you all the success in the world and can’t wait to see all the incredible things you accomplish with your life.”
James floated out of the conference, inspired and confident to begin his next big project. While unpacking from his trip, he found a crumpled-up copy of the conference brochure. He proudly looked at it again, when he suddenly noticed something, someone, staring back at him from the cover of the glossy pamphlet. It was his blue-eyed friend. As he looked closer, he remembered feeling that the blue-eyed audience member looked familiar. “Of course he looked familiar!” he gasped, as he realized that this man was the keynote speaker, the featured scientist who had been flown in from London to lead the conference. This was one of the most respected and revered figures in the scientific world, and he had come to James’ speech!
James spent the next several hours tracking down this man’s phone number. When he finally got him on the phone, James couldn’t contain himself: “I don’t understand! You are the greatest quantum physicist in the world. You knew everything I said and infinitely more. Why did you even bother coming to my presentation?”
There was a small pause, and then a gentle reply: “I will tell you the truth. Thirty years ago, I was a young, ambitious scientist who wanted to make a big impact on the world. I got an opportunity to present at a conference very similar to the one we just came from. This was the most exciting opportunity I had ever been given, and I prepared night and day for months in advance. When it was time for my presentation, not a single person showed up. I was crushed, defeated, and dejected. I seriously doubted my self-worth and almost gave up on my aspirations altogether. It took me years to overcome the emotional hurt. Yesterday, when I finished my keynote address, I was on my way back to the airport to present at another conference. However, when I passed by your room, I saw you standing there in an empty room, and it was like looking at a mirror. A reflection of my past emerged, and I saw myself standing in front of an empty lecture hall. I knew that the best way to encourage you, to teach you, and to ensure that you would continue striving forward was to sit in on your presentation and show you respect, make you feel heard. The greatest form of leadership is empowering others to be leaders.”
James never forgot that conversation.
Leadership to Serve Yourself
The topic of leadership is both fascinating and fundamental to human society. What is the Jewish approach to leadership, and how does it compare to other perspectives on leadership?
The most primitive form of leadership is selfish leadership, driven by the desire for power and self-gratification. In such a system, the leader represents only himself and his own selfish desires. He demands power, craving it for himself, and generally maintains leadership over his people through fear. In such a system, the leader demands the allegiance of his people and makes promises of food, shelter, and perhaps power and honor, in return for respect and obedience.
This was the system of old, where kings, tyrants, and oligarchs ruled large provinces. Wealth, birthright, or rebellion served as the right to leadership, and the purpose of leadership was focused solely on the leader; the goal was to give the leader increased power, respect, and control. This system is inherently corrupt and resulted in endless bloodshed, as the king killed anyone who stood in his way. There were pointless wars, as kings sent the young men of their kingdoms to die for no reason other than their own territorial expansion and glory. In essence, the king answered to no one other than himself.
Representing the People
In response to such corruption, there became an increased desire to shift the focus of power. As history unfolded, leadership moved toward democracy, toward a balance of power. In such a system, the power belongs to the people, not the leader. The leader is appointed to serve the people. If he fails to do so, he is removed and replaced with someone who better fills the people’s needs. This is a far better system than the previous one, as it stabilizes power and creates a society focused on the needs of the people, rather than an individual king or elite few.
Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental problem with democracy: A leader becomes nothing more than a puppet of the people. The flaw in this is apparent. Imagine if parents lost their parental license as soon as their child got upset with their decisions. As soon as the parents put their child to bed, they’d be out of a job. When a leader is fully subject to the will of the people, it is impossible to lead. Democratic leaders may appear to be leading, but in essence, they are following. (It is important to note that this speaks only of ideals. In today’s day and age, the ideal political system is democracy. Additionally, not all democratic leaders share this pitfall. It is only a likely possibility, not a guaranteed outcome.)
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) states that Mashiach will come at a time when “the face of the generation is like the face of a dog.” Rav Elchanan Wasserman explains the depth behind this statement: When you see someone walking a dog on a leash, it appears as though the dog is leading. He walks ahead of his owner; he appears to be calling the shots. However, this is an illusion. The dog is completely subject to the will of its owner. One small tug and he changes direction. The dog is the follower in an illusory position of leadership.
Many democratic systems suffer from this flaw. Leaders are appointed by the people and are therefore completely subject to the will of the people. They walk ahead, pretending to lead, while they are in fact merely puppets. Whatever the people want, they will do. They create their policies and campaigns around the people and polls, not based on their internal values. They would change their policy in an instant if it meant more votes.
A true leader stands for the truth and for their inner values, regardless of opposition. He or she walks ahead and doesn’t look back. Even if no one follows, they push onward. They never sacrifice their ideals for public approval. A true leader creates a direction for a greater future, a pathway to individual and collective greatness, and inspires people to strive for that ideal. This is the nature of Jewish leadership. Let us briefly explore this topic.
True Leadership: Connecting to Something Higher
A Torah leader does not represent himself, nor does he represent the will of the people; he represents Hashem. A Torah leader is an emissary of Hashem in this world, and he will lead the people toward the truth and toward their true destination. Of course, the leader cares for and empathizes with each individual, and deeply so, but the foundational goal of leadership involves driving people toward a transcendent goal.
Traditional kings represented themselves and were therefore no greater than their limited selves. Democratic leaders are chosen by the will of the people and are therefore usually no better than the people who choose them. A true leader is one who strives toward perfection and leads others on their own individual and collective journeys toward perfection, as well.
In our next article, we’ll delve more deeply into this fascinating topic and study some of the key qualities and characteristics of great leaders. In the meantime, it’s important to remember that a leader is anyone who is on a mission, who empowers others, and who always looks for ways to contribute to the greater good. Leaders are great parents, great teachers, and great friends. We are all potential leaders; we are all potential revolutionaries. We can all create change in the world. But to create any external change, we must first learn to develop ourselves and live with higher ideals.
Let us all be inspired to become the greatest version of ourselves with the hopes that our own journey of growth will inspire others to become the greatest version of themselves, as well.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com .