There is a paradox. On the one hand, Torah philosophy is skeptical of hierarchical structures that create leaders and followers. On the other hand, the Torah creates very definite leadership roles. How do we reconcile this deep skepticism of authority with a system that builds authority and leadership into its very foundations? The answer is a paradigm shift. It requires us to explore a completely new paradigm of leadership. There are, of course, different ways to understand leadership. There are many within Western thought that view leadership in a very political, hierarchical sense – top-down.
On the other hand, there are certain African traditions in which leadership is structured bottom-up, guidance from the people. A classic example of this is an Imbizo custom. In certain African tribes, before the king can make any decision, he needs to call a gathering of the tribe – an imbizo – where everyone states their opinion, from which the chief formulates a consensus for the way forward.
Leadership in Torah philosophy is neither top-down nor bottom- up. What is it? It can best be described as “inside-out.” What does this mean? One of our great rabbinic leaders and thinkers in pre-Second World War Europe, Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, the Telzer Yeshiva head, questions whether any notion of absolute leadership is even possible.
He points out that a person requires the consent of others to rule, and he bases this argument on his own eyewitness account of the state of affairs in Czarist Russia, which, to put it mildly, was certainly no democracy.
Even in such an authoritarian, totalitarian regime, he notes that there were certain groups, such as the police and army, without whose support the czar could not have governed. Even the most tyrannical of leaders at the very least need the support of the security forces in order to maintain their rule.
No human being can rule over others without the consent of at least some portion of the governed.
In a democracy, it is with the freely given consent of the majority; whereas in an autocracy, it is with the consent of a powerful few.
Because each human being is created in the image of God, authority cannot simply be imposed; it has to be granted, at least to some extent, by the governed.
However, there is one person in the world, observes Rabbi Bloch, that every single one of us can truly rule over – ourselves. The starting point for real leadership, he explains, is self-leadership – self-mastery, personal integrity, inner greatness. That is the starting point of leadership.
It is only once we’ve mastered ourselves that we can become leaders of others, through a process of ever-widening circles of influence.
In other words, we lead from the inside-out – first ourselves and then outward to others.
Leadership begins with self-mastery.
This is best captured in the mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is wise? One who learns from all people... Who is powerful? One who is able to conquer his own inclination... Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot... Who has honor? One who gives honor to others.”
This mishna recounts all that people strive for in life: wisdom, power, wealth and honor. The common denominator, explains the Maharal, one of our great philosophers, is how the mishna makes the attainment of all of these goals dependent on personal mastery rather than on comparisons with the attainments of others.
Conventional thinking defines wisdom, power, wealth and honor in relative terms, in comparison to the achievements of others. The mishna defines these concepts using internal, personal criteria, giving us aspirations that we can live by, and which are in our own hands to fulfill.
With self-mastery, we have the humility to learn from every person and so become truly wise. With self-control, we can transcend the temptation to do things that are wrong, and so become truly powerful.
With serenity and gratitude, we can find joy in what we have, and so achieve true wealth. And with generosity of spirit, we can give honor to others and so achieve true honor ourselves.
Self-leadership is also about the mitzvot. Personal integrity is the starting point of everything. The mitzvot are the essence of God’s blueprint for every part of our lives: monetary ethics, prayer, speaking kindly to people, Shabbat, kashrut, tzedaka, Pessah, how we speak, how we conduct ourselves in business, how we eat, how we treat others, how we allocate our time, and just about everything else.
Leadership begins with self, but doesn’t end there. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, one of the deep rabbinic thinkers of the twentieth century, explains that as individuals progress through life, their circle of influence expands.
In their early stages of life they merely focus on themselves and on achieving self-mastery, and as a they grow older and become married and start a family, the circle of influence expands to include a spouse and children, and can then widen further to include friends, community and society.
Life is a journey from the inside out – from achieving greatness within ourselves to the point where we can start to positively influence the lives of the people around us.
Now we can solve the puzzle of the Torah’s philosophy of leadership.
We are all called on to be leaders – to lead and influence the people around us. Those who have been given official leadership positions merely have a wider circle of influence than do others, but they do not constitute an entirely different category of individuals.
Every leadership position entails only the responsibility to impact on a wider circle to make the world a better place. That is why even an official leadership position is defined by the Gemara (Horiot 10a-b) as “not power, but service.”
Leadership is not about exercising power over others, but about serving God and making the world a better place.
There isn’t any qualitative difference between a person who occupies an official leadership position and one who does not. Every person is called on to lead, and that leadership begins with oneself and progresses, in ever-expanding circles of influence, to include others.
The question is just how wide our circles of influence are. For some, it includes oneself and perhaps one’s spouse and children, while for others it expands ever wider to encompass a community and a society, and even a world. It all depends on what opportunities for influence a person is accorded by God.
People with official leadership positions have merely been given a wider circle of influence, but there are not two categories of people, leaders and followers. We are all called on to lead.
“The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow” and has always advocated “the end of big” – a world in which every individual feels the power and responsibility to effect change.
Torah literature does not feature specialized books for leaders, because we are all called upon to be leaders, not merely a select few; such books would absolve followers from their duty to make a difference.
The very term “leader” implies that others are to be followers and are not called upon to lead. Leadership for the few would deprive the world of the energy and initiative of the many.This is the second in a four part series on leadership by the chief rabbi of South Africa, which will run every other week.