When we ask ourselves what makes a good leader, we should really be asking what makes a good person. Leadership starts with who we are at heart, who we are when no one is around. Only when we become great people within can we begin to influence others.
This week’s parsha offers us a window into the Torah’s conception of leadership. It does so through the actions of two leadership figures – one of them with an official leadership position, and the other without one.
Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, displayed a total failure in leadership, his actions deepening widespread moral degradation in the Jewish camp, with devastating consequences. And it was Pinchas, a person without any official leadership mandate, who dramatically intervened to stop Zimri from publicly undermining Torah values, and who restored integrity to the camp.
The contrast between these two leaders, Pinchas and Zimri, is striking. As one of the twelve tribal chiefs, Zimri held a prestigious position. Pinchas, on the other hand, though he was the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, had no official rank. Yet it was Pinchas who demonstrated the right kind of leadership, determination and principles, while Zimri, who was technically a “leader”, lacked these leadership qualities.
We see that, at heart, leadership is about personal integrity. It’s about having a strong moral compass; a deep sense of self, and of right and wrong. It’s about character and values, and has little or nothing to do with position.
Leadership begins with self-mastery
There’s a famous Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is wise? One who learns from all people… Who is powerful? One who is able to conquer his own inclination… Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot… Who has honour? One who gives honour to others.”
The Mishna recounts all that people strive for in life: wisdom, power, wealth and honour. Yet rather than making the attainment of these attributes dependent on others, explains the Maharal, the Mishna defines these concepts using internal, personal criteria, giving us aspirations that we can live by, and which are in our own hands to fulfil. With humility to learn from every person, and the passion for wisdom and knowledge, we become truly wise. With self-control, we can transcend the temptation to do things that are wrong, and so become truly powerful. With serenity and gratitude, we can find joy in what we have, and so achieve true wealth. And with generosity of spirit, we can give honour to others, and so achieve true honour ourselves.
The theme of this Mishna is that we need to define ourselves in absolute terms as we stand before G-d, and not be looking around to see what’s going on around us. Furthermore, the Mishna is showing us that being a great person begins within. This is why the essential definition of Torah leadership is leadership that flows “from the inside out”.
One of our great rabbinic leaders and thinkers in pre-war Europe, Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, questions whether any notion of absolute leadership is possible. He points out that a person requires the consent of others to rule, and he bases this argument on his own eyewitness account of the state of affairs in Czarist Russia, which was a tyranny. But, even in such an authoritarian, totalitarian regime, he notes that there were certain people, such as the police and army, without whose support the czar could not have governed. Even the most tyrannical of leaders at the very least need the support of the security forces in order to maintain their rule. So no human being can rule over others without the consent of at least some portion of the governed. In a democracy, it is with the freely given consent of the majority, whereas in an autocracy, it is with the consent of a powerful few. Because each human being is created in the image of G-d, authority cannot simply be imposed, it has to be granted, at least to some extent, by the governed.
There is one person in the world, however, that every single one of us can truly rule over – ourselves, says Rabbi Bloch. The starting point for real leadership, he explains, is self-leadership – self-mastery, personal integrity, inner greatness. And it is only once we’ve mastered ourselves that we can become leaders of others, through a process of ever-widening circles of influence. In other words, we lead from the ‘inside-out’ – first ourselves and then outwards to others.
True Jewish leadership starts with oneself. This was the difference between Pinchas and Zimri. Self-control. Pinchas had the presence of mind, self-discipline, integrity and sense of personal greatness that Zimri did not. Even as the leader of the tribe of Shimon, he could not control himself, and this led to his downfall.
In our times, especially, when there is so much emphasis on the external, on surfaces and superficialities, on seeking the approval of others, we need to develop an internal sense of self-worth.
The Talmud says that in the days leading up to the Final Redemption, the leaders of the generation will be like dogs. Rav Yisrael Salanter explains this comparison using the following illustration: A dog running alongside a carriage and which then begins to outrun the carriage appears to be in the lead. But when the carriage gets to a fork in the road, we see who is really leading; the dog stops and waits to see which direction the carriage takes, and then follows.
Rav Salanter explains that in the times leading up to the Final Redemption, leaders will be looking over their shoulder to see what they should and shouldn’t do by seeking public approval at every turn. They look like they are leading, but really, they are just following, because their point of reference is external; it is societal, rather than grounded in an internal sense of right and wrong.
This speaks to the contrast between Pinchas and Zimri. While Zimri simply followed the tide, entrenching the forces of destruction and degradation that were already prevalent, Pinchas took action and challenged the establishment. The Midrash relates that there were many who undermined him, and it required enormous bravery to stake a position that wasn’t popular. That he did so required a deep sense of self, an unerring commitment to deeply held spiritual and moral values.
Obviously, every leader – and we as individuals – need to take into account the people around us; Torah mandates that we be balanced, that we show recognition and sensitivity to the others. But our starting point has to be that we stand before G-d, and that we develop ourselves in accordance with His principles.
Thus, when we ask ourselves what makes a good leader, we should really be asking what makes a good person. Leadership starts with who we are at heart, who we are when no one is around. Only when we become great people within can we begin to influence others.