Ki Tisa: Leadership

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I recently received the following email:

A number of 12-year-old girls were beginning to use lipstick, and would put it on in the washroom. That was fine, but after they put on their lipstick they would press their lips to the mirror leaving dozens of little lip prints. Every night, the maintenance man would remove them and the next day, the girls would put them back.

Finally the principal decided that something had to be done. He called all the girls to the washroom and met them there with the maintenance man. He explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian who had to clean the mirrors every night. To demonstrate how difficult it had been to clean the mirrors, he asked the maintenance man to show the girls how much effort was required.

He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it in the toilet, and cleaned the mirror with it.

Since then, there have been no lip prints on the mirror.

Leadership styles come in many wonderful (and not so wonderful) flavors. Some dictate, demand or wield, others coax and evince, while a precious few inspire and empower. Some explicitly convey expectations while others model. Some are subtle while others overstate.

Writing about leadership is very “in” these days. Forming a major substratum of the newly minted success literature (Seven Habits, Good to Great, One Minute Manager, etc.), Corporate America has become obsessed with isolating principles and behaviors that yield great results.

But for those most part (there are significant exceptions) the genre of leadership literature is style heavy and essence light – placing a premium on tactics and strategies. To be sure, tactics are important conveyors – helping to maximize effectiveness and glorify the golden bottom line. Herein lies the rub, for tactics are as varied as people are. Some respond to the carrot while others have stick resonance. In the end, strategies live or die by their success rates.

Studying the essence of leadership though is a different matter. Under the microscope, we seek to understand the critical midot (traits) of a leader. Intuitively, we understand that a leader must have vision and courage. That is almost definitional. No doubt there are many critical qualities required of the effective leader. A brief tour of the traditional sources yields two additional critical aspects of a leader.

When the wealthy Rabban Gamliel walks into the great and impoverished (blacksmith) Rabbi Yehoshua’s home he compassionately remarks his surprise upon seeing his colleague’s dirty walls and proletariat lifestyle. Rabbi Yehoshua chides Rabban Gamliel’s leadership and bemoans a generation whose leaders do not understand the tribulations of their flock (1). Deep understanding of the other is a critical leadership component. Small wonder then, that seven of our greatest leaders are collectively called the roeh shivah (See Micha, 5:4, cf. Sukkah 52b) the seven shepherds, for a shepherd must have an intuitive understanding of his flock and its needs. Leadership however, does not merely boil down to empathy.

In the difficult days of the Golden Calf aftermath, Moshe turns to Hashem and says (32:32): “Hashem, forgive Bnei Yisrael and if not, then micheini na misifrecha, wipe me out from Your book that You have written”. Hashem responds: “those that have sinned I shall wipe out from the book…”.

What book is he referring to? Rashi as most other commentators assume, we are talking about the Book, aka the Torah. Ramban (and Ibn Ezra) argue that Rashi’s approach is troubling for the following reasons:

a. Of what utility is it for Moshe not to be mentioned in the Torah?
b. How does it better his negotiations with Hashem as he pleads on behalf of Bnei Yisrael?
c. Hashem’s response seems not to relate to Moshe’s request at all.

Therefore, Ramban tells us that the book is not the Torah – but rather it is the sefer hachaim the book of life itself. In his final ploy for forgiveness, Moshe pulls out all the stops and is willing to give everything. Moshe tells Hashem – better me than them. I am willing to give up my eternity for the sake of Am Yisrael. (In the end, Hashem tells Moshe that vicarious atonement is not a Jewish concept – but that is not the relevant point here.)

Who is Moshe? He is a man of great accomplishments and many titles: Intellectual titan, Giver of Torah, Savior, and Malkeinu – King of the Jews. Ultimately as history records, his primary title is Rabbeinu.

A Rebbe is neither an information automaton nor a living Torah rolodex. A Rebbe is the one who exiles himself with his student if that’s where his student needs to be. In a classic shiur on Behaalosecha, Rav Soloveitchik taught:

What is an *Omen*?- it is a nursing mother or father. Of course, a nursing mother teaches the baby. Perhaps the mother is the best and most important teacher in the life of a baby. But she does something else – the Rebbe teaches the talmidim. The nursing mother, in addition to teaching, carries the baby in her bosom or in her arms. “…as a nurse carries a sucking child,”. What does this mean? Usually the father doesn’t do it, the mother does it. The father has no patience for that. … The teacher does teach his disciple, but the disciple very seldom becomes a part of him. When the mother teaches the baby, the baby becomes a part of her. The mother, when she rears the baby, has one calling, one purpose, to protect the baby. The *Omen* or the mother basically do not belong to themselves. Many may be very critical of my statement but this is true according to Yahadut. A mother has no life of her own. She belongs to the infant. At least as long as the infant is helpless and is exposed to the dangers of a hostile environment. She belongs to the infant.

Moshe discovered now that teaching is not enough for a leader of Yisrael. A teacher, no matter how devoted, has a life of his own. That his job is nursing, carrying the baby in his arms, watching every step, guessing the baby’s needs (a baby cannot say what she wants, you have to guess) feeling pain when the baby cries and being happy when the baby is cheerful. …

A father may “understand” a child’s pain – but it is mother who wakes up from her slumber to feed the babe. A professional educator may understand the child’s problem, but it is the caring teacher who will give of his/her time. A perceptive friend or a keen spouse might know what lurks in the hearts and minds of their significant other, but to the extent that it remains knowledge and not devotional it is irrelevant.

At the heart of the matter, lies plain ole’ mesirut nefesh. As leaders in our families, workplaces and our communities, we will only be able to impact people when we are willing to give our most precious resource of all, our very selves.

Good Shabbos

1. (אוי לו לדור שאתה פרנסו, שאי אתה יודע בצערן של תלמידי חכמים במה הם מתפרנסים ובמה הם נזונים ).

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.