> Current Issues > Society

Leadership, Me?

December 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

Everyone is in a position to lead. Even you.

I am not a leader. Period.

I'm a follower ... and a good one, at that. I'm quiet, unassuming, timid, cautious, and decidedly unadventurous. I avoid the limelight and disdain any kind of attention. I dislike parties. I have the personality of a stapler. Heck, I don't even vote. In short, I just mind my own business.

Sound like you?

Well, I have some important news for you.


Sorry for yelling, but I'm trying to make sure I get my message through to you.

Oh, you may indeed be quiet, timid, and restrained. I don't doubt that. You may even hide when the mailman comes. But, believe it or not, that doesn't mean you are not a leader.

You probably think leadership is genetic and if your last name isn't Feinstein, Kanievsky - or lehavdil Bonaparte or Giuliani for that matter -- you just don't have what it takes. "These are born leaders," you say. And here, you are quite right; they probably are, in a sense. But that doesn't mean that leaders are crowned with that title only in utero.

Leaders happen to come in all shapes and sizes and wrappings. Put it this way, if you are a teacher (and who isn't?), you lead. If you are a boss or a supervisor, or in charge of any work operation, you lead. If you are a parent, you lead. If you have friends who admire you, you lead. If you have siblings, you lead. The list is truly endless.

But there seems to be a reluctance, almost a resistance to think of ourselves as leaders. First of all, we often associate leadership with charisma. This is unfortunate. When we do that we automatically exclude the overwhelming majority of people, because how many of us are truly charismatic?

And then there is the fear factor. Fear is probably the sharpest double-edged sword in the universe. On the one hand, nothing can motivate a person to do something more than fear can. Just ask the petite mother who witnesses the horror of her little baby stuck under a car. She still cannot explain how she was able to actually lift the car and extricate her treasure. Nor could she do it again, if asked. Answer? Fear.

But, seemingly contradictory, nothing carries the capacity to cripple and "freeze" someone like fear can. Just ask your neighborhood deer, who can often outrun a Honda when its life depends on it. But more frequently it stands frozen at 11 p.m. on Route 42 when the headlights of an oncoming Camry bear down on it. Yes, fear. And it's the same way with humans.

Fact is, we fear leadership. We see it as a burden we can well do without. We picture ourselves crashing down from the overwhelming responsibility that it carries.

  • "How am I supposed to guide others when I can't get my own life together?"
  • "I'll be exposed as incompetent, unqualified, and uncaring."
  • "Decision-maker? I have trouble deciding which shoes to wear to the office!"
  • "The pressure would be too much to bear."
  • "I will fail."

And the fear is compounded when we picture ourselves on the hot seat, alone at the top, comparing ourselves to World Leaders and CEO's of major corporations, as if all leaders are rich, famous, or powerful.

The essential trait to great leadership is compassion.

Well, the good news is that you need not be Moses or Queen Esther to qualify. You can just be ... well ... yourself. Yes, with all your insecurities, imperfections, anxieties, and stapler personality. You are still not ineligible.

The one and possible only trait that is essential to great leadership is compassion. It is very hard to affect anyone else without feeling a certain measure of caring for another person. It is, I believe, the single indispensable characteristic that truly unites all leaders. (Notice, if you will, that I am not including the Hitlers, Stalins, and Husseins of the world, whose "leadership skills" were channeled exclusively in forming oppressive and tyrannical regimes.)

All truly great leaders throughout history felt a compelling desire to better the lives of others: globally, communally, or personally. And that desire was an expression of the sense of compassion that resonated within them, no matter where life's circumstances took them or how turbulent the storms they weathered seemed to be.

Biblical Joseph best exemplifies this phenomenon. After having been sold into slavery by his brothers, he finds himself incarcerated in Egypt: bereft and alone. But as the narrative so brilliantly relates, the events that lead to his eventual release from prison and ultimate rise to power and reunion, all begin with Joseph's startling compassionate initiative.

He had already been in jail for nine arduous years. The despair and resignation that swells in intolerable conditions such as those is, undoubtedly, unimaginable. And yet, Joseph meets up with two fellow prisoners and asks them a seemingly odd question.

"Why do your faces seem depressed today?" (Genesis. 40:7)

What does he expect to see on their faces, glee? Who inquires of inmates the reason for their foul mood? Only someone with unusual capacity for compassion. And his subsequent reward is a shocking promotion to a position of unparalleled leadership.

No leader really sets out to be a leader. People just set out to lead their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of care and value, they become leaders.

No, it is not as simple as I am stating it. Compassion is indispensable, but you also need desire too. And that usually comes only after you have actually tasted the rush that leadership brings.

The special characteristics that define leadership are perhaps best summed up by Warren Benis, a world-renowned expert on organizational development. He has authored 27 books on leadership. He cites 12 distinctions between managers and leaders:

  • Managers administer, leaders innovate.
  • Managers ask how and when, leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers focus on systems, leaders focus on people.
  • Managers do things right, leaders do the right things.
  • Managers maintain, leaders develop.
  • Managers rely on control, leaders inspire trust.
  • Managers have a short-term perspective, leaders have a longer-term perspective.
  • Managers accept the status quo, leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers have an eye on the bottom line, leaders have an eye on the horizon.
  • Managers imitate, leaders originate.
  • Managers emulate the classic good soldier, leaders are their own person.
  • Managers copy, leaders show originality.

So remember, you don't have to be Joshua, King David, or especially great at anything at all.

Just be yourself and feel a little compassion.

It happens every day.

Excerpted from Yaakov Salomon's new book, Salomon Says: 50 Stirring and Stimulating Stories. Click here to order.

In these marvelous stories -- brimming with wit, understanding, a touch of irony and a large helping of authentic Torah perspective -- we will walk with a renowned and experienced psychotherapist and popular author through the pathways of contemporary life: its crowded sidewalks, its pedestrian malls, and the occasional dead end street.

This is a walk through our lives that will be fun, entertaining -- and eye-opening. In our full -- sometimes overfull -- and complex lives, Yaakov Salomon is a welcome and much-needed voice of sanity and reason.


Leave a Reply

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram