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Yitro: On the Nature of Leadership & the Art of Delegation

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Shlichus: The Rebbe’s Brilliant New Approach

~ In honor of Yud Shvat, 53 (gan) years since the Rebbe assumed leadership and the Annual International Shluchos Conference this weekend, 22 Shvat, the 15th yahrzeit of the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka ~

The central theme of this week’s Torah portion (Yitro) is about the most momentous event in history: The Revelation at Sinai. Yet, preceding this we read about a lesser known event: Yisro’s advice to his son-in-law Moses.

When Yisro witnesses the large number of people waiting all day to see Moses, he suggests that Moses delegate responsibility and appoint others to help him address the people’s needs. The Torah dedicates an entire section telling us about Yisro’s piece of advice, and how Moses accepts it, with G-d’s consent.

What was so brilliant about Yisro’s delegation idea that the Torah finds it so important to document? Delegation is a basic logical concept; couldn’t Moses have thought of it on his own? When many people need advice and there is only that much limited time, delegation is the obvious solution. You allocate and assign different parts of the job to a variety of people in order to get a larger job done. So why is Yisro credited with this new innovation – and the Torah makes a whole fuss about it – something that any simple person could have thought of?!

Furthermore, Yisro’s advice is related to us right before the Revelation at Sinai. Why is delegation so important to have it immediately precede Mattan Torah (the giving of Torah)? Commentaries explain (see Rashi and others) that this incident actually took place the day after Yom Kippur, when Moses returns with the Second Tablets after spending 120 days on the mountain. But this only amplifies the question: Since Yisro’s advice comes only 120 days after Sinai, why does the Torah feel it necessary to place here, right before the Sinai experience?

These questions have always bothered me. Searching through commentaries as well as asking teachers and scholars has not yielded an adequate response, until I recently discovered the answer in an unlikely place, right under my nose.

Many of you may know me as the author of Toward A Meaningful Life, a book based on the wisdom and teachings of the Rebbe (the Lubavitcher Rebbe that is), for whom I had the privilege to work for over 14 years documenting and publishing his public talks, many of which had to be reconstructed from memory. Growing up around the Rebbe I was always mystified by the way the Rebbe established his infrastructure.

The Rebbe’s objective – actually, the objective of the entire Chabad Lubavitch movement, as established by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and perpetuated by the Rebbes after him – is very clear:

Yofutzu Mayonosech Chutza is the mission statement declared by the founder of Chassidus, the Baal Shem Tov. Yofutzu Mayonosech Chutza means: Spreading the wellsprings [of Torah, i.e. the inner dimension of Torah] outward, which will create a spiritual awakening that will transform the world into a home for G-d and usher in the Messianic age of spiritual awareness, when “the world will be filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”

To achieve this goal – to disseminate the message and revive the larger community – the Rebbe created a broad network called shlichus—sending out hundreds of young emissaries over the world to establish and build community centers that serve the Jewish and spiritual needs of the local population.

At first glance, the way the Rebbe established the shlichus system seemed somewhat haphazard (if I may use that word, kavyochol). The Rebbe inspired young couples to pick themselves up, leave their families and hometowns, and settle in an unknown city where they initially had no financial backing or support, and build a community from scratch! In most cases the new shluchim were given no resources – no seed money, no building, no position – except the mission to build!

Young couples, mostly untrained in administration, fundraising and project development, were suddenly charged with the responsibility to raise money, establish community connections, develop public relations, construct buildings, create educational programs for young and old  – do all that is necessary to form a beachhead to serve all the spiritual, and religious needs of the community.

As the years passed, beginning from 1950 when the Rebbe assumed leadership of the movement, the shlichus network grew and expanded far and wide. And in each instance, the Rebbe’s method remained the same: Each shliach (emissary) was expected to build with little or no resources.

The question is: How did the Rebbe expect to maintain quality control over such a wide network? It’s one thing when there is one shliach (or a handful), but not when there are hundreds and even thousands of emissaries all over the world, each faced with respective challenges of their country, city and community.

By contrast, all corporate, government and other institutions with national and international branches and networks all have complex and elaborate quality control systems. There is a hierarchy – beginning with a CEO or executive director, who directs a group of national directors, who oversee local directors, etc. Each director ensures the operation and accountability of his/her respective branch. There are comptrollers and treasurers, bookkeepers and accountants, lawyers, presidents, chairmen and boards, there are timely spot checks, vigilant reviews, elaborate audits and reporting systems – an entire labyrinth with a comprehensive set of checks and balances, to ensure that the objective is being met. And even with all this in place – we see what it has led to in our current corporate meltdown…

Just look at the thousands of pages that have been written on business administration and institutional infrastructures.

And here, when it comes to the shlichus network, we find no systems that the Rebbe put in place to ensure quality control. The Rebbe simply inspired his students to go out there and… create a revolution to transform the world with G-dliness. He left it up to each shliach to figure out how to do it technically, legally and financially!

Each Chabad emissary has his own budget, own board of trustees, own staff and buildings – with no legal and financial binding to anyone else. The Rebbe did not ask that each Chabad house be signed over as the property of ‘central headquarters,’ not even as co-owners, not even as ONE member on the board of trustees.

Obviously, shluchim all felt accountable to the Rebbe and would report to him on a timely basis. But this did not constitute legal and financial control and obligations (see the Rebbe’s letter cited below). The Rebbe could have easily required each shliach to bind his institution legally and financially to some central center, and every one would have absolutely and readily complied. Yet, he chose not to do that.

The question is: why? With such decentralization how did the Rebbe foresee quality control being maintained?

What would happen if G-d forbid one of his emissaries did not live up to his standards? What happens when there is disagreement – an inevitable reality – between emissaries? How is it to be resolved? And why did the Rebbe not intervene in instances of blatant disagreements that even became public embarrassments? He could have easily stepped in to help resolve the issues.

I always wondered about these issues, as I am sure others have too. Though I have absolute confidence in the Rebbe and know that his approach was all calculated and well thought through, yet I was interested in the logic behind it. I knew there was something very profound about the way the Rebbe set up shlichus and the method he employed – a model that perhaps could be applied to other areas of life.

Only in the last years can we truly appreciate the sheer genius of the Rebbe’s decentralization approach. And in effect, also understand the brilliance of Yisro’s suggestion – an approach that can be developed into a method for parents, educators, and even business leaders how to motivate and delegate, how to build and create a wide network while maintaining the highest level of integrity. This may even serve as a model for future leadership, and perhaps offer a new business model for the future.

The key in understanding this novel approach is to recognize the true nature of spirituality vs. materialism. Spirituality is driven by the dedication (bittul) to a higher cause; material success is driven by personal and selfish gain. To motivate someone in an arbitrary, materially oriented and self-generated system you have to offer material incentives, and define strong guidelines to maintain control, lest individual interests compromise the mission and conflict with each other. Empowering individuals in a materialistic institution is always a risky proposition that must be done with great care, and is generally valuable only to produce results, but the empowerment itself can cause management many problems (case in point: unions). Eliminating hierarchies and offering equality to all employees is anathema to any organized institution. A chain of command is critical and necessary for success.

However, in a spiritual system, which is driven by a higher cause and everyone involved is there only because of their dedication to the cause, the key is to define the exact parameters of the objective, but once you do, individual empowerment is optimal, and yes, there is a fundamental equality among all the leaders and teachers.

Interestingly, the basis for this approach lies in the Rebbe’s own words, delivered in his first formal talk after assuming leadership of the movement in 1951 (10 Shevat 5711). Following the formal discourse that he delivered (the maamar Basi L’Gani), the Rebbe began with these words:

“Now, listen Jews! In general Chabad demands that one has to independently accomplish. Not to depend on the Rebbes… I do not decline from helping, G-d forbid. Helping as much as possible. But everything is in the hands of Heaven besides fear of Heaven. Accordingly, if one does not do on his own – what will help that one offers writings, sings songs, says l’chaim. The Rebbe would sometimes say: Leigt zich niht kayn foigelech in buzim [don’t deceive yourself]. Each person on his own has to transform the… passion of the animal soul into holiness.”

Leigt zich niht kayn foigelech in buzim – an extraordinary expression, yet completely understood. The Rebbe is saying that one may have the temptation to depend on the Rebbe. No, don’t deceive yourself into thinking that the Rebbe will do the job for you. You must do it on your own. And the Rebbe will help the one that helps himself. In his first formal talk the Rebbe laid down the foundation – which would be the theme of his entire leadership:  Avodah b’koach atzmo. You have to independently achieve on your own.

The challenge any company has is to motivate employees. The usual method is through pay, bonuses and other perks and incentives. Why are these incentives needed, because the employee is a hired gun and has no self-generated interest in the cause of the business or organization. So you compensate him in order to earn some of his loyalty and dedication. In other business models employees are given stock options, or even partial ownership – partners – yet another motivational tool.

Why not make employees owners? First, because the owner wants the bulk of the profit. Second, that would make quality control a nightmare. You must have leadership from the top.

What the Rebbe did was take the exact opposite approach: He insisted that the building of Chabad institutions be inherently independent. Not like employees hired from NY central headquarters, but each shliach on his own raises the funds, takes out mortgages, goes through all the pains and challenges of building something form scratch. Essentially, Chabad is a franchise. It is a myth to believe that Chabad has one single $500 million annual budget; each Chabad shliach is solely responsible for his area. Avodah b’koach atzmo.

But what about quality control? What prevents these individuals from going off on their own (obviously financial profit is a non-issue here: The Rebbe was not interested in financial gain!).

And here is the brilliance. The title shliach combines two opposite qualities: a bar daas, an independent thinking person (he cannot be your child or servant), he must be independent. And as an independent individual he chooses at his own volition to sublimate himself to the meshalayach (the sender/messenger) and remains dedicated to the messenger and his mission. Should he change the instructions of the sender, then he automatically has disqualified himself from his mission.

How is this quality control to be maintained? The Rebbe did not appoint a committee of overseers, indeed the Rebbe himself trusted that the shluchim would follow the mission. The Rebbe understood very well that all humans are fallible, and that is precisely why he didn’t want anyone to exercise a monopoly of control. Because who then can be trusted with the yiras shomayim necessary. Would anyone venture to appoint and designate one shliach and say – ahh, here is the yira shomayim that is more devout than others and can be trusted more than others? It is quite dangerous territory to begin judging each person’s fear of G-d and determining if someone has defied the original messenger’s mission… (if an instance like this does arise, the Rebbe’s clear directive is to direct the issue to competent Rabbis, see below).

Can you say that you trust one emissary more than another? If one shliach needs another to oversee him, then who oversees the overseer? (Obviously we’re not talking about an employee of a shliach who is paid a salary for a particular job, but about someone who has built an institution with a board of trustees, and solely carries the financial burden and responsibility of budget, etc.).

This explains why the Rebbe did not appoint a hierarchy of leaders, “leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens” as Yisro suggested. Because Yisro was addressing the appointment of judges, with the strict criteria that was only possible with Moses’ ruach hakodesh (Divine vision), to ‘seek out G-d fearing men, men of truth, who hate injustice.”[1] The Rebbe however charged every one with the mission of becoming a shliach, regardless of one’s level[2]. And did not make such conditions, and therefore did not appoint a controlling hierarchy.[3]

No, The Rebbe in his brilliance inspired all his students, and instilled in them the will and the spiritual commitment to maintain his standards, Torah standards, halachik standards. Of course everyone can fail, everyone can err – and many have, from shluchim who were first to arrive in their area and state to those working for them; but the proof is in the pudding: 53 years of shlichus has proven that the Rebbe’s method works.

This does not mean that a shliach has no accountability, G-d forbid. He has direct accountability to the Rebbe himself, to Torah – to G-d. No one is perfect. And in order to protect against human error, the Rebbe trained his Chassidim to know that they have to answer for every move they make – they must consult Torah, Shulchan Aruch and competent Rabbis. They each need to fulfill the directive “Provide for yourself a teacher” (Avot 1:6), consulting a senior Chassid and the likes. In addition, the Rebbe designated a loose umbrella that would coordinate shlichus activities and provide a platform where shluchim could interact, benefit and strengthen each other (“each will help his neighbor, and tell his brother: be strong”) – but all in an advisory role.

And fascinatingly, although the Rebbe does not have the legal control and power of a CEO and corporate head over his branches and employees, the connection and allegiance of a shliach to the Rebbe is deeper and more absolute than that of any employee to a corporation!  The profound connection is precisely because it is not driven by pay, bonuses of a hired gun, but by total loving dedication to the Rebbe’s mission, in a way that has become integrated and one with the avodah b’koach atzmo of the shliach!

And from this we learn the secret of Yisro’s’ suggestion: The brilliance was not in the delegation per se, but in maintaining quality control through the process.

When Yisro asks Moses why he is doing the job alone, Moses replies: “The people come to me to seek G-d.” Moses understood delegation; his concern was quality control: Moses in his humility knew that the people were coming to him because G-d had chosen him to be their leader and teacher. He didn’t see how that job could be delegated. Others simply were not men of G-d as Moses was, and were not trusted as Moses was.

Yisro does not deny that. He acknowledges to Moses that “You must be G-d’s representative for the people and bring their concerns to G-d…” Nevertheless, Yisro says, you must and can seek out trustworthy people – “capable…G-d fearing…truthful…who hate injustice (or monetary gain)” – and appoint them to administer justice for the people (18:19-21).

This advice – with G-d’s concurrence– will ensure the survival of Moses and the entire nation, this delegation will allow the nation to “attain its goal of peace” (18:23).

Yisro’s advice was unique in that he showed Moses how he could delegate while maintaining the integrity of the original, with no compromise. And the secret of doing so is by infusing in the delegation a spiritual standard of integrity that will always keep the delegatee or shliach on course. Should he waver from the initial mission and its spirit, his position would inevitably and automatically be lost.

Obviously, one has to qualify the use of Yisro’s advice in regard to other delegation models, because Yisro was addressing the establishments of the judicial system, the appointment of judges that administrate law, with all the strong criteria necessary for such positions. Yet, many lessons can be derived from Yisro’s delegation system and applied to models for life today.

Why did this advice come specifically from Yisro, and not directly from G-d or Moses?  (see Akeidah, Abarbanel, Shach on this portion). Torah was given in order to transform the universe. Yisro was a man of the world. Indeed, he was a sheik who had mastered all the philosophies and religions of the world. It is therefore specifically Yisro who advises on how to establish the delegation system in a way that can help change the world from the bottom up. From Moses birds’ eye perspective he knew that his role was to pass on the word of G-d. It is Yisro, man of the world, master of the secular sciences, who defines the way the word of G-d can be disseminated in the most efficient manner, without compromising its integrity.[4]

Only after Yisro’s suggestion was offered and accepted, do we read about the giving of the Torah – a Torah that would have to survive all challenges, over generations, communities, expulsions and genocides. How does Torah maintain its integrity (quality control) throughout all its journeys through history?

Not through communist methods of mind control, or bureaucracies etc. But by passing on the nature of truth and trusting that people will maintain it. The Torah is not a ‘business,’ driven by personal profit and arbitrary standards. Torah is truth. It is Divine. Divine truth has a built in immune system – if someone wavers from it, he automatically disqualifies himself from representing Torah. As 3314 years of history has proven that those that wavered from the essential mission statement of Sinai and its divine nature – ultimately disqualified themselves and are no longer on the map.

There was no need for appointing oversight committees and departments of ‘truth and information.’ Whenever you hear of such a department, rest assured: it is neither true nor information! The truth of Torah is not like the goals of a business which has no inherent truth built in; a business is driven by selling product – good or bad, an entirely arbitrary venture, which therefore needs incentives – financial and other – to keep everyone motivated. The Torah is not an arbitrary force; it is a divine blueprint for life – absolute truth, with the complete confidence in the Divine Image ingrained in each human being that s/he will embrace its message (if presented properly, communicated from the heart).

If there are questions and disagreements, the Torah itself has set up a system of checks and balances, called Rabbinic courts, whose job it is to provide direction and legal clarity and help people objectively see the inner truth of Torah. “Judge the community…and protect them” (Numbers 35:24-25).

Even the Rebbe himself never intervened in local conflicts, as he writes in a letter (20 Kislev 5745): “…it is well known that the various Chabad institutions are financially completely independent of our central office. This is also an obvious necessity in view of the fact that there are hundreds of such institutions the world over, and it would be impossible to direct them all from headquarters.” In a note dated 7 Elul 5747 the Rebbe writes (translated from Hebrew): “Lubavitch exists some 200 years, and many issues have been established like ‘nails’ [i.e. etched in stone],’ (and many of them – as per Shulchan Aruch), and among them – that every institution needs to be directed [or governed] by the administration [management] on location (physically and spiritually) in action…”

In case of disagreements, the Rebbe writes (in a letter dated 3 Tevet 5740): “…I have stated clearly and many times that according to Shulchan Aruch when one person has complaints against another the issue should be judged [considered] in a meeting of ‘hanhalas Anash’ on location [the leaders of the local community]. If they do not decide or the person does not carry out the decision etc. – they should then approach the Rabbis of Anash to render a legal ruling. If necessary the ruling should be in writing…”

If the Rebbe writes this about himself, how much more so regarding his shluchim, who clearly were not given more power than the Rebbe himself! The concept of “shliach oseh shliach,” where one emissary has the power to appoint another emissary does not make the emissary stronger than the messenger himself. Additionally, an emissary appointed by an emissary becomes a representative of the original messenger (not of his emissary), and he is “considered as if he is the [first] person who appointed him,” and has the power in turn to appoint new emissaries. The emissary’s power to appoint an emissary is not because he has any power of his own; it is due only by virtue of the fact that appointing new emissaries is part of the mission he was given.

Indeed, Torah is just like life itself. G-d created independent human beings with free will. He gave them a Torah that instructs us how to live our lives. Yet, once humans have free will there is always the risk that we may not follow the Divine guidelines. What did – does – G-d do about that? He did not create overseeing committees, thought police and communist dictators (those ‘creatures’ were created by people themselves); G-d trusted human beings. Yes, let me repeat that: He TRUSTS us. He BELIEVES in us. He trusts that the Divine Image within each human being will surface, and that we will ultimately live up to His expectations of us.

Of course, every human can fail, fall and err. There are therefore many laws, guidelines and suggestions in the Torah how to discipline and control ourselves – a system of checks and balances. There is of course also the need for justice and law enforcement. But above all, G-d trusts us, and it is that trust that we must live up to. Because ultimately there are no laws that can completely control human actions.

For us to be transformed we must have within ourselves the power to connect to G-d; it cannot be driven by dogma and imposed on us by dictators. It has to be embraced with love – maclhuso b’rotozon kiblu aleihem, you willingly accept G-d’s sovereignty over you.

And this is the Rebbe’s brilliance in the establishment of shlichus. Chabad equals Torah which equals life. Chabad is not a business, it is a Torah movement. Torah is not a business – it is the way of life, the way G-d instructs us how best to live our lives and fulfill our calling. Torah is “our life and our sustenance.” As such, Chabad is structured just like Torah is structured and just like G-d structured life:

Independent entities who willingly and lovingly accept the mission that were charged with – to follow the Torah, and willingly build institutions, schools, synagogues, social centers to disseminate Torah and Mitzvot and transform the world into a home for G-d. And precisely because their own initiative is invested in the cause – avodah b’koach atzmo – it therefore has the power to perpetuate forever.

Which answers the question many people ask: How is Lubavitch maintained after Gimmel Tammuz, when the Rebbe is physically not here with us? And not only maintained, but it continues to grow! The answer is both simple and profound:

Lubavitch is not a business which cannot be sustained without a CEO. Lubavitch is a Torah movement. It is part of the Divine perpetuation of Torah. The Rebbe trained and inspired people to become leaders. They are not dependent little children – or employees – waiting for instructions from the chairman, president or CEO of a company. The Rebbe – and the Rebbes before him – in his multitude of Torah teachings and writings (based on the Torah teachings of all the generations before him going back to Moses at Sinai) has defined a comprehensive philosophy that addresses all the issues of life today. His Chassidim and shluchim continuously consult these teachings to direct them in how best to fulfill their mission in life.

This unique combination of both total dedication and total independence – an independence which has chosen to be utterly and totally dedicated to the cause – is the secret of Chabad-Lubavitch, and its power of perpetuity.

Indeed this is the secret of the eternity of Torah – a secret that began with Yisro’s initiative 3314 years ago.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The issues addressed in this article are obviously complex and far reaching. I would appreciate receiving feedback, comments and any other insights that readers may have. I especially invite anyone that may have some more facts that would illuminate the Rebbe’s position on these matters. Of course all facts have to live up the Rebbe’s own criteria, namely: “…It is well known that my responses are in my own handwriting (or I say them publicly at a farbrengen)” – letter dated 3 Tevet 5740. “If anyone speaks in my name, it must be in my writing or something that I stated publicly at a Farbrengen” – Sichat Parshat Meshpotim 5747.


[1] This also offers us clarity in the criteria for finding an appropriate Rabbi when faced with the need for Rabbinic intervention.  See Maimonides Laws of Sanhedrin 2:7: Seven qualities a judge must have: wisdom, humility, fear [of G-d], hates money, loves the truth, loves people, good reputation. See also Deuteronomy 1:13;16-17: Men who are wise, understanding and well-known… judge honestly… do not give anyone special consideration when rendering judgment. Listen to the great and small alike, and do not be impressed by any man, since judgment belongs to G-d.

[2] The Rebbe explains the reason for this in many of his talks. One prominent reason: Due to the spiritual crisis today, we cannot wait until every one has perfected himself before s/he goes out to save spiritual lives. When a fire is burning, you don’t wait and do everything possible to save a life. Pikuach nefesh doche kol ha’Torah kulo.

[3] Even regarding the Rabbinate today, after the Temple has been destroyed and we no longer have the central Sanhedrin [‘Supreme Court’], the Rabbinate has become decentralized, with every community turning to its respective Rabbi as its authority.

[4] See Ohr HaTorah Yisro p. 731-733. Likkutei Sichos vol. 16 pp. 203.

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