Service Leadership: Loyalty & Collective Responsibility

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

All content is provided courtesy of The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, which has been established with a mission to promote the timeless and universal wisdom of Rabbi Sacks zt”l as a Teacher of Torah, a Moral Voice, and a Leader of Leaders.

"So the picture that emerges from the Jewish sources is of a man with great gifts, a genuine prophet, a man whom the Sages compared with Moses himself.  Yet at the same time a figure of such flawed character that eventually led to his ultimate downfall, to his reputation as an evil-doer, and one of those mentioned by the Mishnah as having been denied a share in the world to come."

The highest accolade given to Moses is that he was “a servant of the Lord.” He is called by this description eighteen times in Tanach. “Do you think that I am offering you authority?” said Rabban Gamliel to two of his colleagues who declined invitations to take on leadership roles, “I am offering you the chance to serve.” (Horayot 10a:21-10b:1)

Robert Greenleaf, in his classic Servant Leadership, derives this principle from a Buddhist story by German novelist and poet, Hermann Hesse. Nevertheless, the idea of leadership as service is fundamental to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and explains the otherwise inexplicable, that humility is the highest virtue of a leader.

Moses, we are told, was “very humble, more so than anyone else on earth,” (Bamidbar 12:3). The idea that humility is a virtue would have sounded paradoxical to the ancient Greeks, for whom Aristotle’s great-souled man, megalopsychos portrayed a figure of effortless superiority with a strong sense of his own importance.

Which begs the question: is leadership a set of skills, the ability to summon and command power? Or does it have an essentially moral dimension also? Can a bad person be a good leader, or will their badness compromise their leadership? That is the question raised regarding the pagan prophet Bilaam.

Bilaam was a religious virtuoso, a sought-after shaman, magus, spellbinder and miracle worker. His many skills were clearly impressive. The rabbinic literature does not call this into question. On the phrase, “no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Devarim 34:10), the Sages went so far as to say: 

“In Israel there was no other prophet as great as Moses, but among the nations there was. Who was he? Bilaam. There was nothing in the world that the Holy One blessed be He did not reveal to Balaam, who surpassed even Moses in the wisdom of sorcery.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20)

Balak, the Moabite king, says, on the basis of experience or his reputation, “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” (Bamidbar 22:6). 
 
Bilaam had supernatural powers; he could bless someone and that person would succeed. He could curse and that person would be blighted by misfortune. At a technical level, he had all the skills,  but he was just a prophet for hire. There is no hint in any of the reports, biblical or otherwise, that Bilaam was a prophet in the moral sense: that he was concerned with justice, or the rights and wrongs of those whose lives he affected.
 
So the picture that emerges from the Jewish sources is of a man with great gifts, a genuine prophet, a man whom the Sages compared with Moses himself.  Yet at the same time a figure of such flawed character that eventually led to his ultimate downfall, to his reputation as an evil-doer, and one of those mentioned by the Mishnah as having been denied a share in the world to come.
 
There are people with great gifts, some are intellectual and sometimes even spiritual, who nonetheless, fail to achieve what they might have done. They lack the basic moral qualities of integrity, honesty, humility and above all loyalty. What they do, they do brilliantly. But often they do the wrong things.
 
Conscious of their unusual endowments, they tend to look down on others. They give way to pride, arrogance and a belief that they can somehow get away with great crimes. Bilaam is the classic example, and the fact that he planned to entice the Israelites into sin even after he knew that God was on their side is a measure of how the greatest can sometimes fall to become the lowest of the low.
 
Those who are loyal to other people find that other people are loyal to them. Those who are disloyal are eventually distrusted and lose whatever authority they might once have had. Leadership without loyalty is not leadership. Skills alone cannot substitute for the moral qualities that make people follow those who demonstrate them. We follow those we trust, because they have acted so as to earn our trust. That was what made Moses the great leader Bilaam might have been but never was.

Later on, this idea of loyalty when it comes to leadership became evident in the principle of collective responsibility. which rose out of one of the great crises of Jewish history. It is then that we begin to hear the adage that says that “all Israel are responsible for one another.” (Shevuot 39a: 22)

The Romans had already conquered Israel, destroyed the Temple and razed the city of Jerusalem to the ground. Under Hadrian, the public practice of Judaism had been banned. Many of the leading rabbis were crucified or burned at the stake. Jews found themselves without any of their traditional leadership cadres. There were no more kings, high priests or prophets, and the ranks of the rabbinate had been decimated.

Without land, home, sovereignty or rights, and without a clear structure of leadership, Jews realized that the future of their people and faith rested with each one of them. Each had to engage in acts of charity if their fellows were to be saved from poverty. Each had to become educated so that he or she could educate others, starting with their own children.

Highly evolved networks began to emerge wherever Jews were. Every communal need, from education to welfare to dowries for poor brides to the dignified burial of the dead, had its own chevra, fellowship. Anyone who could was expected to serve, and leadership of any such group was regarded as both an honor and a responsibility. It was an extraordinary model of distributed leadership, sustained not by structures of power but by shared commitment. Everyone was expected to use his or her gifts for the good of others – and it worked, sustaining Jewish life through centuries of exile and persecution.

As leaders, they appealed to the people’s altruism. They made sure that the sacrifices were borne equally and that everyone contributed. They had no patience for people intent on their own advantage at the cost of others. They didn’t seek miracles or make promises they couldn’t keep. They knew that the only way to successfully negotiate change is to educate the people, trust them, empower them, and speak to the better angels of their nature. 

And they knew above all that faithfulness, reliability, and loyalty mean not walking away from the other party when times are tough. It is a key covenantal virtue and the message for us today is that unless we sustain a similar culture of altruism, there will be no real leadership, merely a striving for success or power. 
 
Daily Goals:
The best training for leadership is a sense of responsibility for the common good. Great leadership is less about technique, charisma, or people-, political-, and number-crunching skills, than about seeking the good of those you serve. Martin Luther King put it well: “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.” It is the cause we dedicate ourselves to and the people we serve that lift us, not our own high estimate of ourselves.

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