In an ideal society, everyone is devoted toward achieving his or her own unique greatness while simultaneously devoting that individual greatness toward the larger collective greatness of the nation. A leader’s role is to enable each individual to embark on his or her own journey of self-discovery and achievement, while also helping them devote their lives to a greater whole – to that which transcends themselves, to Hashem, the Jewish People, and the world as a whole.
This explains a seemingly strange halachah of the Eglah Arufah (D’varim 21:1–9). If a man is found dead outside a city, the elders of the city must decapitate a calf and proclaim that they did not kill this person. Why, though, would this even cross our minds? It appears obvious that the elders – the leaders of the city – did not murder an innocent Jew! What then is the deeper meaning of this strange halachah?
The Gemara elaborates on the procedure of the Eglah Arufah and explains that the elders of the city must promise that they did not turn the man away without food and an escort. On a practical level, this means that, as the elders of the city, they did not refuse this man adequate sustenance and protection.
But do the leaders really have to escort every single guest out of their city? Rav Michael Rosensweig suggests a deeper understanding, one that carries with it a profound lesson. The elders of the city are the leaders of the city. They influence the atmosphere and set the standards for the city; it is their job to inspire greatness in the people. If they achieve this, nobody in the city would ever murder an innocent man. The elders are therefore required to swear that this death was not due to a lack in their leadership; they assure us that they set up the proper standards of behavior to make something as abhorrent as murder unthinkable.
With this foundation, let us now study the key characteristics of a great leader.
Qualities of Leadership
Everyone is a leader in some capacity. Some will lead their families, while others will lead the world. The scale is irrelevant; the principles remain the same. Leaders must begin by leading their own lives, devoting themselves toward their own personal greatness. In addition to self-development, leaders must have strong moral convictions, a genuine love of others, and sensitivity to their needs. Most important of all is the desire to lead lishmah (for a higher purpose), without any selfish or ulterior motives. Let us develop this topic in greater depth.
Self-Development As the Prerequisite
The crucial prerequisite of effective leadership is first developing oneself. Before you can lead anyone else, you must lead yourself toward a greater state of existence. This requires a relentless desire to better yourself, to improve every aspect of your life, to become more self-aware, and to maximize your full potential. Developing a deep awareness and connection with Hashem is fundamental to this process. It is therefore no surprise that many Jewish leaders in the Torah were shepherds (See Kli Yakar, Sh’mos 3:1). The Avos, the Sh’vatim, Moshe Rabbeinu, and David HaMelech were all shepherds, which provided them the time and setting to contemplate the nature of existence and connect with Hashem on the deepest levels. They walked around in nature, admiring the awe-inspiring world Hashem created – a lifestyle conducive to a spiritually rich existence. They had the peace of mind to gain deeper levels of self-awareness and weren’t caught up in the unimportant and tedious elements of life. In addition to developing empathy and leading a flock, a shepherd’s life is one that enables a spiritually flourishing existence.
The Lone Path
A leader must also be willing to commit to the right path, even if he is the only one doing so. Avraham was called the “ish ivri” because all the masses walked on one side of the river, and he walked on the other. (Ivri comes from the Hebrew word “eiver” (the other side), as in “the other side of the river.” Ideologically, Avraham walked on “the other side.”) He walked alone, choosing to live a life of truth rather than a life of social acceptance. Sometimes, people can see most clearly once they have distanced themselves from their current surroundings, as this gives them the ability to rethink, redirect, and then return with newfound purpose and meaning.
Avraham completely removed himself from his culture. Moshe spent many decades alone in the desert and on the run from Pharaoh, building his clarity and understanding of life before returning to lead the Jewish People. David HaMelech grew up as an outcast before being appointed as king by Shmuel. This is not always necessary, but often, a step back leads to a giant step forward. This is why teenagers who leave their homes in chutz la’aretz and spend time learning Torah in Eretz Yisrael often find it immensely transformative for their spiritual development.
After one has properly developed his or her own inner self and connection with Hashem, a true leader must then learn to properly expand outwards, devoting his life to that which transcends himself, i.e., his people. This requires one to become a giver, a lover of others, someone who focuses on the well-being of his nation. Avraham was an “ish chesed” (man of kindness). Moshe’s first sign of leadership was his empathy, feeling the pain of those outside of himself: He intervened when a Mitzri was beating a Jew, when Dasan and Aviram were fighting, and when Yisro’s daughters were being harassed. (It’s fascinating to note the unique progression of Moshe’s empathy. First, he stops a non-Jew from hurting a Jew. Then he stops a Jew from hurting a Jew. Finally, he prevents a non-Jew from hurting a non-Jew. This reflects an ideal whereby we care about all of humanity, not only people who we are related to, feel close to, or relate to ideologically. While there may be a hierarchy, the fact remains all of humanity is interconnected, and all are deserving of respect, dignity, and empathy.)
A leader’s empathy must extend so far that he is willing to sacrifice and endure pain for his people, putting the needs of his people before himself. The 70 Z’keinim (Elders) in the Midbar were the taskmasters in Mitzrayim. They were beaten mercilessly by the Mitzrim because they refused to hurt their brethren when the Jews failed to meet their quotas. Their leadership was granted to them as reward for the pain and sacrifice they were willing to endure for their people. But in a deeper sense, they weren’t awarded positions of leadership because of their sacrifice; rather, their sacrifice itself is what transformed them into leaders. (True leaders do not sacrifice their people for their own well-being. Israeli officers are known to lead their soldiers into battle and not remain behind in the safety of their army’s protection.)
Truly empathetic leaders care as much about the individual as the masses. While inspiring the masses is critical, if a leader cannot lower himself to help an individual, there is something essential that is missing from his leadership abilities. He must see the infinite value within every single individual. When a single sheep ran away from his flock, Moshe ran after it to retrieve it. It was at this exact moment that Hashem revealed Himself to Moshe at the burning bush, appointing him as leader of the Jewish People.
Perhaps most important of all, a true leader never desires power for himself. His goal is solely to fulfill his unique purpose and to help others do the same. He leads by directing his people toward something far greater than himself: He leads them toward Hashem, toward their purpose, and toward their destiny.
We Are All Leaders
Some leaders are the face of a nation, the ones who stand in front of large crowds and deliver extraordinary and inspiring speeches. But that is not the only type of leader. 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.