What are the qualities of a true leader?

By Cantor Sheri Allen
Parashat Shemot

In just a few weeks, our country will swear in the 46th president of the United States, and whether you voted for him or not, I think everyone can agree that we can anticipate major changes in the way this country will be run, and we can all pray that the our new commander in chief can make America…united again.

After such a contentious and volatile race, it will take a strong leader to accomplish that. It’s ironic that the Torah portion that we read this week, Shemot, also involves a change in leadership: Ex. 1:8: “Vayakom melech chadash al mitzrayim asher lo yada et Yosef: A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” This Pharaoh feels threatened by the Israelites, and decides that the only way to ease his mind is to kill all Jewish newborn male babies and enslave the entire people. Moses escapes the death sentence, is raised in Egypt by Pharaoh’s daughter, and eventually makes a cozy life for himself shepherding in Midyan, with his wife Tzipporah and their sons.

Until his acknowledgment of a Burning Bush changes the trajectory of his life. God sees in Moses what Moses can’t see in himself: a true leader. How does God know this? God recognized that Moses is compassionate. Upon arriving in Midyan, he saves his soon-to-be-father-in-law Yitro’s daughters from harassment from some nasty shepherds as the young ladies were drawing water for their flock. Moses not only got rid of the offenders — he took over the girls’ watering duties. This act of kindness doesn’t go unnoticed by Yitro, and it didn’t go unnoticed by God either, who decides that Moses is definitely the man for the job when it came to “letting God’s people go.”

Parashat Shemot basically defines the qualities needed to become an effective and inspirational leader. In addition to compassion, leaders need to possess humility. Moses actually turns down God’s job offer at first, reasoning that he isn’t able to communicate effectively. But God won’t take no for an answer. 

Jewish leadership trait #3: respect. One of Judaism’s main tenets is that we are all made “b’zelem Elokim: in God’s image.” Every human life has value. If we save one life, it’s as if we have saved the world. If we destroy one life, it’s as if we have destroyed the whole world. Whereas Moses seeks to save lives, Pharaoh isn’t even concerned about how his own people are suffering through the plagues, until finally, his own family is personally affected.

Good leaders must also be good listeners. Moses recognizes God’s presence emanating from the Burning Bush, and he stops to acknowledge it and listen to God’s voice. And when governing the people on his own becomes too much for him, he listens to his father-in-law Yitro’s advice urging him to share the burden of leadership with others. 

Moses never forgets who he is working for. He speaks in God’s name and makes sure the people, as well as Pharaoh, know it. The one and only time he loses his temper, striking a rock so that water flowed without clearly attributing that miracle to God, he is punished harshly. But he accepts that outcome too, perhaps realizing that, as a leader, he is held to a higher standard. 

In his Jerusalem Post article entitled “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, OBM, states, “Leadership begins with taking responsibility. (Moses) is the supreme case of one who says: When I see wrong, if no one else is prepared to act, I will.”

Let me add that taking responsibility also means taking responsibility for your failures as well as your successes. I believe that the mark of a great leader is not his/her ability to always “get it right.” It’s about cultivating the skill of self-awareness: having the courage to own up to one’s mistakes. It’s the ability to say, “You’re right. I screwed up. And I’m asking your help in fixing it.” 

Rabbi Sacks also points out, “Leaders learn. Without constant study, leadership lacks direction and depth.” Our liturgy describes that every Jewish king had to have in his possession his own personal Torah scroll, so that his governing would be guided by the mitzvot.

Being compassionate; possessing humility; garnering and giving respect; listening without judging; taking responsibility for one’s actions; possessing self-awareness; being motivated to learn: Our tradition teaches us that a true leader embodies these traits. I am hopeful that President Biden will embrace them as well so that we, as a nation, can begin to heal, become stronger, and be the United States of America once more.

 Sheri Allen is in her 12th year as cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington.

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