The fact that the current Torah readings concentrate on the life and career of Moshe as being the all-time supreme leader of the Jewish people, and through them of civilization generally, caused me to give some thought to the trait of leadership. We always think of leadership as a positive trait. Yet, some of the most charismatic and successful leaders of nations and empires have been very bad people who have led their people to ruinous disaster.
So, a case can be made that certainly not all phases of leadership are to be viewed as positive attributes. Like all traits of character and behavior, there are many qualifying circumstances that will determine the positive or negative aspects of leadership as it is expressed in particular times and places.
Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao and others all possessed great leadership qualities. Yet there is no doubt that the world would have been better off if they never would have become leaders of millions and killers of many millions more. Yet in spite of the fact that on balance one could easily conclude that there have been more bad leaders than good ones, and that leadership is certainly not an absolute as a beneficial trait for humankind overall, there are countless seminars and courses offered on developing the art of leadership.
In business, education, politics, government, sports and the arts, everyone wants to be a leader, no matter what type of person he or she may be or whether that individual’s leadership will be constructive or destructive to themselves or to society generally.
There is a chicken or egg quality to the issue of leadership. Is leadership a built in personality trait, hard wired into us the moment we are born or is it rather an acquired societal trait that can be taught and inculcated into others? Again, looking at the plethora of leadership training seminars and courses being offered at all times and places worldwide, it is obvious that the prevailing wisdom is that leadership is an acquired trait – one that anyone can pick up at will by signing up to one of those leadership training course or weekend seminar.
But I have always believed that leadership is like hitting a baseball – either you can or you can’t – and that only fine-tuning can be accomplished by training and practice. The innate qualities to lead people and have them follow your ideas and visions are some of the most powerful personal traits that one can possess.
Of course, leadership requires the ability to articulate one’s ideas and vision clearly and understandably. And even sometimes, though rarer, just the presence of the leader even without great oratorical skills is all that is needed. Probably our teacher Moshe is probably the leading example of this truism. But over most of world history, oratorical skills accompanied political leadership, sometimes with baleful consequences such as the cases of Hitler and Mussolini and sometimes with more beneficial results as in the cases of Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. As we can see, leadership is a very tricky thing to assess.
Rabbinic or religious leadership is even harder to evaluate correctly. For centuries, rabbinic leadership was based solely on Torah scholarship and erudition. However in today’s society within the Orthodox Jewish world, leadership has become more a matter of dynasty and pedigree and less of a matter of true meritocracy.
This is true in the Chasidic world as well as in the Lithuanian yeshiva society and, to a certain extent, even in the more “modern” sections of Jewish religious society. This dynastic trend has occasioned great splits in Chasidic courts and in the Lithuanian yeshiva world. It has also inhibited needed talent from rising to leadership roles in our community.
If one is not a son or a son-in-law of the present day leader then the chances of attaining a leadership role, no matter how talented, is automatically severely limited. Insular communities are by their very nature hostile to new ideas and programs, no matter how necessary they may be for the preservation and growth of the community itself. These communities are certainly suspicious of “outsiders” or any new people rising to power.
Moshe, if he suddenly appeared on the scene and claimed a leadership role for himself, would probably have a hard time being accepted in today’s Orthodox religious world, for he was the ultimate “outsider.” It is a long road back to meritocracy as being the criterion for Jewish religious leadership. But I believe that it is a road that eventually must be traveled in order to guarantee a successful Jewish future.