The purpose and intent [of a true leader] shall be to
elevate mankinds faith, and to fill the world with
justice -- Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 4:10
Everyone must be a leader -- The
At some point in our lives, we have all had a relationship
with someone -- a parent, a teacher, or employer perhaps --
who greatly changed the way we look at life and the world.
Someone who had high standards and truly stood for something.
Someone who inspired and motivated us. Someone who taught
us to set goals and instilled the confidence and spirit to
achieve them. Such a person is a true leader.
Today, we are surrounded by people we may call leaders --
in government, in business, in education, in the arts. But
we are suffering from a scarcity of genuine leadership. Where
are these people really leading us, and why?
After witnessing so much deceit and such frequent abuse of
power, many people have stopped trusting their leaders. Still,
no matter how cynical we may grow, we resign ourselves to
the fact that we need someone to keep our various houses in
order. Since we are so preoccupied with our own lives, we
are willing to elect or appoint officials to manage the affairs
of the land.
But is a leader merely a manager? What should we expect from
our leaders? And do we really need leaders in the first place?
Yes, we do need leaders. On our own, we lack the vision,
direction, and strength to reach our goals. We all begin our
lives in need of guidance - even the most precocious child
could not possibly be expected to make certain crucial decisions.
Once we become adults, with the capacity to reason for ourselves,
we are so overwhelmed by the pressures of daily survival that
we rarely find the time and energy to focus on lifes
larger issues. And when we do, our emotions and inherent subjectivity
limit our vision and constrict our movement.
A leader provides a new perspective, inspiring us to abandon
our narrow field of vision. When we are preoccupied with
our self-interests - be they petty or great - a leader sends
out a wake-up call, alerting us to seek the true priorities
This sense of urgency is just as important in a leader as
a sense of vision. Leadership today is sorely lacking the
quality of urgency. Many of our leaders are effective managers,
and some are even inspirational; we have CEOs who can
direct thousands of employees toward a single objective, and
politicians whose rhetoric inspires millions of citizens to
What these leaders dont provide is simple -
and essential: a vision of life itself. Genuine leadership
must give people a long-term vision that imbues their lives
with meaning; it must point them in a new direction and show
how their every action is an indispensable part of a purposeful
whole. It is not enough for our leaders to teach us to be
productive or efficient; they need to inspire us to change
or improve the world in a productive, meaningful way. And
this creates a compelling sense of urgency: to fulfill this
vision of life.
What Makes a True Leader?
With so many people purporting to be leaders these days,
how do we recognize a true leader? To answer that question,
we must step back and ask: What is it that a leader is really
trying to accomplish?
A true leader wants nothing more than to make people stand
on their own, as leaders in their own right. Instead of trying
to blind us with his or her brilliance, a true leader reflects
our own light back to us, so that we may see ourselves anew.
Moses was the quintessential leader. We see in Exodus that
he was a shepherd - a rather modest beginning for the
man who would speak to G-d. He kept watch as thousands of
sheep wandered the fields. Moses noticed that one sheep was
missing and went off to look for it, finding it at a distant
brook. When the sheep had finished drinking, Moses lifted
it onto his shoulders and carried it back to the flock.
When G-d saw this, he realized that Moses was a man of reason,
empathy and selfless devotion, a man truly worthy to lead
His people. After all, no one was watching Moses; he could
easily have thought to himself, Why be concerned with one
sheep when there are thousands?
In our secular society, we tend to think of a leader as a
person who is well-connected, who is powerful or charismatic
or wealthy. We judge our leaders by what they have.
But a true leader should be judged by what he has not
-- ego, arrogance, and self-interest. A true leader sees
his work as selfless service toward a higher purpose. As the
sages say, Leadership is not power and dominance; it
is servitude .
This does not mean that a leader is weak; he derives great
strength from his dedication to a purpose that is greater
Each generation has its Moses, a leader who inspires absolute
trust, who is totally dedicated to fulfilling his unique role.
He understands and appreciates each persons role in
perfecting this world, and guides him or her accordingly;
he rises above any individual perspective to take a global
view, seeing how each person and issue fits into the entire
scheme of the contemporary world.
A true leader shakes people from their reverie and tells
them, No, you dont need to live a life
of desperation and confusion. Yes, you do have the
ability to find meaning in your life, and the unique skills
to fulfill that meaning. You are an important link in a chain
of generations past; you have a legacy worth preserving and
a future worth fighting for.
A true leader shows us that our world is indeed heading somewhere
and that we control its movement. That we need not be at the
mercy of personal prejudices or the prevailing political wind.
That none of us are subservient to history or nature -- that
we are history and nature. That we can rid the world
of war and hate and ignorance, and obliterate the borders
separating race from race, rich from poor.
Centuries ago, kings and queens ruled the world, but we are
today far removed from the very concept of absolute leadership.
Indeed, leadership would seem to contradict our democratic
tradition, which has taught us not to subordinate our lives
to another human being. But we cannot afford to be so literal-minded:
If the ideals of democracy were followed to the extreme, if
the public demanded a referendum for even the smallest piece
of legislation, society could not function. So our current
political makeup is a pragmatic and acceptable compromise,
allowing individuals a role in choosing their leaders while
holding the leaders responsible to society.
Still, many people have lost faith in contemporary leaders.
The solution is not to resign yourself to this sad state of
affairs, but to search for and demand a leader of sterling
character. The ultimate goal should be to have all the benefits
of democracy and the benefits of a visionary leader.
It is important, especially today, to distinguish between
leadership and demagoguery. A demagogue may inspire people,
but his motives are impure and his expectations unrealistic.
It is wise to be a bit skeptical when assessing a leader:
Is he truly devoted to his mission or just seeking glory?
Is he truly interested in the welfare of others or simply
building a flock for his own aggrandizement?
A true leader does not want followers; he wants to teach
others how to be leaders. He does not want control; he wants
the truth. He does not impose his leadership on others, nor
does he take away anyones autonomy. He inspires by love,
not coercion. When it comes time to take credit, he makes
himself invisible; but he is the first to arrive at the time
of need, and he will never shrink away in fear. He is so passionate
about your welfare that when you consult him for guidance,
it is like coming face to face with yourself for the
A true leader must be a living example of his teachings.
When we see that a leaders personal life embodies his
philosophy, we too are inspired to learn that philosophy.
Conversely, if we see that a leader does not live by his own
words, we cannot trust him.
It is useless for a leader to be a visionary in the abstract;
he must be a successful communicator whose vision can be translated
into specific, applicable principles - not knowledge for the
sake of knowledge, but knowledge that can actually help improve
So a leader must be many things - selfless, devoted, visionary,
courageous, and above all, humble. When G-d chose Moses to
lead His people out of bondage in Egypt, Moses replied, Who
am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh? (Exodus, 3:12).
Indeed, Moses was humbler than any man on the
face of the Earth (Numbers, 12:3).
We must recognize the characteristics of a leader - not only
so we can weed out the demagogues, but so we can freely embrace
a true leader when he does emerge. When people sincerely believe
in a leader, they rise above their petty self-concerns. They
become eager to accept his direction and input, and are inspired
to accomplish far more than they could have on their own.
By recognizing the characteristics of a true leader, we set
a standard for our leaders and, more important, for ourselves.
Setting your sights on the summit, even when you have yet
to arrive there, is the surest way of completing the journey.
After the passing of his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe,
in 1950, the Rebbe initially declined to lead the Lubavitch
movement, saying that one needs to have special strengths
for such a task. A year later, on the first anniversary of
his father-in-laws death, he finally accepted and formally
One of the rare occasions on which he addressed his role
as leader was during a celebration for his eighty-third birthday,
in 1985. Immodesty is one of the most destructive attributes
in human nature, he said. It is the root of all
inappropriate behavior. How can we then allow people to gather
here today in honor of one individual?
The Rebbe explained that the gathering was not meant to
honor an individual, but an entire movement toward righteousness.
Therefore, it isnt relevant which individual heads
the movement - only the movement itself, he continued.
The success of the movement is dependent on the unity
of all its followers, a unity that transcends their differences.
However, in order to unite people who are diverse by nature,
there needs to be one leader who is a servant to the cause,
whose sole role it is to teach and inspire and perpetuate
the activities of the movement.
This is an excerpt from Toward a Meaningful Life
The Wisdom of the Rebbe by Rabbi Simon Jacobson. Available
at our Online
 Talmud Horiot 10b. As G-d told Moses: I have
given you greatness only for them (ibid., Berachot