Judaism – A Spiritual Discipline for Leadership

The Jewish Path to Leadership

Dr. Bill Robinson

Moses is considered the consummate Jewish leader; but who of us will become Moses?!  By focusing on Moses, or Joshua or even Esther, we reinforce a model of leadership that is extra-ordinary and thus impossible to live up to.  Models of leadership should provide instead an example that one could reasonably follow, while focusing us on cultivating those unique qualities we each bring to leadership.

Consider the following story.  The Hasidic master, Rabbi Zusya, lay upon his deathbed, crying.  His students, gathered around him, asked, “Rebbe, why are you so sad?  After all the mitzvot and deeds you have done, you will surely warrant a reward in heaven!” “I’m afraid!” replied Zusya. “When I get to the world to come, I know God will not ask me “’Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ But I’m afraid that God will ask ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?‘”

As a Jewish communal professional or volunteer leader, the path to leadership begins by looking deeply into our own selves.  It is there we will find the passions and talents, already within us, that we can cultivate to become inspiring and impactful leaders.  Yet, how do we cultivate them?

When we think about how Judaism can help us become a better leader, we tend to think about the wisdom contained in the stories of our Jewish heroes and the discussions of the rabbis.  Yet, Judaism offers a second path to leadership, which involves attending the dojo of Jewish mitzvot

Remember the movie The Karate Kid?  Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach Daniel karate, and he begins by having him clean and wax his car, and then his house – “Wax on, wax off!”  Days later, Daniel complains that he is not learning karate, until Mr. Miyagi shows him that the muscle memories he has developed through the days of waxing and cleaning are exactly what he needs to begin the journey of karate mastery. 

Like the sports player who goes to the gym, or anyone that seeks a more balanced life through yoga, leadership is an endeavor that requires having a discipline of regular practice that cultivates one’s social, emotional and spiritual “muscles.”  The rituals and mitzvot of Judaism offer us a set of “wax on, wax off” dojo practices for cultivating our ability to master the core competencies of leadership. 

Na’aleh teaches seven core competencies of leadership.  They are the ability to:

  1. Develop a discipline of self-growth based on one’s character strengths.
  2. Nurture relationships of mutual respect, shared discovery, and constructive self-reflection.
  3. Awaken yourself and others to the complex and evolving systems in which you are embedded.
  4. Attune yourself and others to sacred purpose.
  5. Build enduring and equitable partnerships that bridge difference.
  6. Co-design creative solutions to respond to shared challenges.
  7. Practice leadership with your whole self.

For each of these leadership competencies, there are Jewish exercises to help us develop the appropriate “leadership muscle.” 

The Jewish exercises for mastering the first competency – developing a discipline of self-growth – are known as Mussar.  Developed by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 19th century, Mussar involves daily, critical self-reflection on a particular middah (character trait, such as humility, courage and gratitude), which one is trying to cultivate in oneself, along with practicing key mitzvot as a way to cultivate those middah muscles.  For example, if you seek to develop your capacity for gratitude, you would reflect on how well you practiced it the day before, and you would (for example) begin each day by reciting Modeh Ani: “I give thanks before you, divine presence living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion.  Abundant is Your faithfulness.”  This morning practice strengthens your gratitude muscle, which you can then employ successfully in any leadership situation where you would be better served in being appreciative than critical or self-righteous.  

Mussar sets the pattern for our Jewish leadership dojo – reflection and exercise.  Yet, we are not just cultivating middot, though these are foundational.  We are building the muscles needed to master each of the seven core leadership competencies. 

Concerning the 2nd core leadership competency, there are likely many Jewish “exercises” to develop one’s capacity to engage in relationships of shared discovery.  Yet, one “exercise” is particularly powerful – our tradition of chavruta study.  In chavruta study, two people explore a Jewish text together.  While they many glean meaning from the text being studied, they also develop through practicing the key skills of active listening, inquiry, intellectual openness, and finding value in what others bring to the table.  These skills are essential to developing the types of relationships we need to effectively lead.

Concerning the 3rd core leadership competency – to awaken yourself (and others) to the world around you of which you are a part – we could practice Jewish meditation or say Jewish blessings.  As Jews, we are commanded to say 100 blessings a day – in doing so, we “wax on, wax off” repeatedly till becoming attuned to our surroundings is as natural to us as breathing.

There are Jewish practices for each of the seven core competencies of leadership – Shabbat, the various Holidays, creative rituals, and that art of midrash.  This second path to leadership asks us to see Judaism differently than we may have in the past – not just as a source of wisdom or a set of laws to observe but also as a discipline like yoga that can help us develop the competencies we need to lead.

To learn more, attend our newest program – The Jewish Path to Leadership.  Register here:  https://naalehbaltimore.org/programs-events/events/the-jewish-path-to-leadership/

Finally, the core competencies of leadership are as applicable to organizational change as they are to navigating one’s personal and family life.  For example, as a parent I work to develop relationships of mutual support, shared discovery, and constructive self-reflection with my spouse. Together, we seek creative solutions to the complex challenges of child-rearing grounded in our different perspectives and shared commitment to our family.  In all this we bring our unique character strengths.  The seven are the competencies we must master to foster a life of well-being, and Judaism offers us a dojo where we can.

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