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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Talmudic Leadership Models

Daf Yomi Sotah 30


A large organization had recently hired several cannibals. After conducting a lengthy new hire orientation the human resource director congratulated the cannibals and said, “You are all part of the team now! You get all of the benefits we have discussed and you can enjoy our company cafe free of charge! But please don’t eat any of the other employees.” Each of the cannibals promised they wouldn’t.
After a few weeks the cannibals’ boss seemed very pleased, but also a little worried. She said, “You’re all working very hard, and I’m satisfied with you. However, one of our secretaries has disappeared. Do any of you know what happened to her?” The cannibals all shook their heads, “No.”
After the boss had left, the leader of the cannibals was a bit angry and said, “Okay, which one of you dummies ate the secretary?”
A hand rose hesitantly in admission. “You fool!” said the leader, “For weeks we’ve been eating managers and no one noticed anything, but nooo, you had to go and eat someone important. . !”

Leadership, today, is a big buzzword.  In the twenty-first century, we have recognized that there’s more to leadership than mere management.   Even in the Jewish world, rabbis and other scholars are examining models from the Torah and finding applications for leadership today.  But the truth is, our tradition has always provided great insight into what makes a great leader.

Rabbi Akiva taught: When Israel arose from the Red Sea, they were inspired to sing a song of gratitude.  How did they sing? Like a leader chanting the Hallel with everyone else repeating certain refrains.  Moshe chanted, “I shall sing to Hashem,” and they responded, “I shall sing to Hashem.”  Moshe chanted, “for He is truly exalted,” and they repeated, “I shall sing to Hashem.”
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi Hagelili says: Like a minor chanting the Hallel with everyone else repeating exactly what he recites.   Moshe chanted, “I shall sing to Hashem,” and they responded, “I shall sing to Hashem.”  Moshe chanted, “for He is truly exalted,” and they responded, “for He is truly exalted.”
Rabbi Nechemia says: Like the chazan leading the Shema in shul.  He begins and the congregation continues. 

The rabbis here are describing three approaches to leadership.  The first type of leader directs people and expects them to respond, ‘Yes, sir!’  There is no variation to the response; this leader knows that the most efficient way to run the company is if the underlings follow orders.  When orders are followed, the ship runs the tightest.  That is Rabbi Akiva’s explanation of the order of events: no matter what Moshe chanted, the people responded with the same words.

The second type of leader directs people in such a way that he expects them to model his leadership approach.  He doesn’t want to create robots that just follow orders without thinking.  He strives to teach his followers how to mimic his leadership approach, knowing that the company will be the strongest when he can delegate to lower-level managers.  He can only do so, however, when he can rest assured that the subordinate managers will lead in the same way that he leads.  That is Rabbi Eliezer’s model: whatever Moshe declared, the people echoed.

The third type of leader does not simply shout orders.  Nor does he expect people to become carbon copies of himself.  The third type brings out the best in his followers.  Like a chazan, he demonstrates the right path to his followers, but once they’re heading in the right direction, he lets go of their hand and allows them to develop their own unique ‘song.’  That is Rabbi Nechemia’s approach: bring out the best in people by showing them the right path to blossom in their own right.

These leadership styles are not mutually exclusive.  Different situations call for different measures and approaches.  The key is to know how to act when.  In most situations, we want to strive for model three, but that is not always the most ideal approach.  Sometimes, too many captains sink the ship – if everyone is trying to lead, nothing gets done.  On such occasions, we must humble ourselves and choose one person to direct everyone else.  Other times we need to recognize great leadership and model it precisely.

Nevertheless, most of the time, we want to aim for the third model.   The ultimate leader understands her followers and strives to bring out the best in them.  She appreciates what makes each person unique and acknowledges that what made her great will not work exactly the same way for other individuals.  True leadership means showing the way and then watching your flowers blossom.

We are all leaders in some aspect of our lives.  Some of us lead professionally; others lead communally; and of course, we all must lead intergenerationally.   That means providing direction to your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

How do you lead them?  You could tell them what to do and hope they respond, ‘Yes, sir!’  You could demonstrate good life skills and hope they follow your example.  Or you could invest the time and effort to figure out how to bring out the best of their spirit to allow them to blossom into leaders in their own right.


Different situations call for different leadership models.  If you want to succeed throughout your life, you must be familiar with each approach and apply it when the situation calls for that model.  May you merit being a leader in every facet of your life and creating leaders all around you!