What Is a True Leader? by Rabbi Benny Berlin

I learned a beautiful idea from Rabbi Citron on the Parasha that I would love to share. He differentiated between two different models of leadership. There is the “leader-first”
model and “community-first” model of leadership.

In the “leader-first” model, the leader says, “Jump,” and his servants ask, “How high?”. The people exist to serve the leader, to enrich him and to answer his every whim. Of course, “community-first” leadership makes the opposite assumption, namely that the leader accumulates power not for his own self-aggrandizement, but in order to better the people who have placed him in power.

We read this week, in Parashat Pinchas (27:16-23), that Hashem appoints Yehoshua to replace Moshe as the leader after the Jewish People will enter the land of Israel. Moshe is commanded to “place him in front of Elazar HaCohen, and the entire congregation, and command him in front of them” (27:19). The Netziv makes a comment that demonstrates clearly that “community-first” is not a modern invention, but rather, is the model for a Jewish leader. The Netziv writes: “Leadership is really about subjugating yourself and your personal needs in order to serve the people you are leading.”

What a revolutionary concept! Imagine the course of history if kings and world leaders viewed themselves as servants rather than as privileged demi-gods out to enrich themselves at the expense of their subjects!

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook would sign his letters: “Servant to the holy nation, in the holy land.” Rav Kook, too, intuited that his role as a Gadol was to serve his people. When appointed Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem in 1919, Rav Kook moved into the Bet David compound, on what is today called Rav Kook Street. As was the custom then, the courtyard was locked at nights because of security concerns. Rav Kook refused to live there, behind a locked door, because he said that people may need him in the middle of the night and they needed to have access to him. To accommodate him, Harry Fischel, the great American philanthropist, built a second wing onto the existing courtyard and provided access through an external staircase. Now, people would be able to access Rav Kook at all hours of the day and night.

Thousands of years ago, the Torah presented a model of leadership that modern-day educators are only now being to understand: A model in which the leader’s role is to serve, to facilitate and to enable others.