Ethics of Leadership

Leadership is all the rage these days. Professors of leadership and management define, analyze, and propose models of leadership, and business sections of bookstores are filled with leadership/mentoring books. Political candidates routinely assert that they (alone) will provide leadership. Jewish authors have jumped on the bandwagon too, sifting Jewish tradition and history for role models of leadership (especially Moses) and for lessons to cultivate more effective leadership (especially the Passover story). New members of Congress attend special seminars in effective leadership, as do new university presidents. It’s boom time for taking notes about leadership.

Yet two paradoxes immediately raise concern. First, one of the few realities that link the world’s leaders across the millennia is that they never studied leadership. Many of the truly profound people we now saddle with that label wouldn’t have recognized themselves as such — they were simply doing what they understood God, family, nation, or simply decency, demanded of them. The flip side of this paradox (that leaders don’t study leadership) is that the people who teach leadership are generally not, themselves, leaders.

The second and greater paradox is that leadership involves complex ethical dilemmas at every turn. In the Talmud, the sages instruct Alexander of Macedon to “hate sovereignty and authority.” Alexander demurs, “I have a better answer than yours: let the person love sovereignty and authority and confer benefits on humanity.” (Tamid 31b) Despite the ethical perils, we need good leadership and we crave great leaders.  As is so often the case in life and rabbinic tradition, the best safeguards we have to preventing abuse is robust conversation — frequent, thoughtful, passionate, open, and inclusive.

About what do we need to converse?

  • About the need for and the danger of leadership based on inspiration and charisma
  • About the need for a compelling vision, and for forcing ourselves to notice our vision’s blind spots
  • About the tension between affective leadership versus transformational leadership
  • About the temptation to reduce leadership to management, or to consider leadership above management and ignore the details and the methods of the prosaic aspects of implementing leadership vision
  • We need to consider the nature of group responses to leadership — the tyranny of the majority, and the nature of herd mentality
  • We need to look at structures to channel and contain leadership

Finally, we need to think long and hard about the issue of character and compassion as a cornerstone qualification for true leadership. It is taught, “Once, while Moses, our Rebbe, was tending Jethro’s sheep, one of the sheep ran away. Moses ran after it until it reached a small, shaded place. There the lamb came across a pool of water and began to drink. As Moses approached the lamb he said, ‘I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You are so exhausted!’ He then put the lamb on his shoulders and carried him back. The Holy Blessing One said, ‘Since you tend the sheep of human beings with such overwhelming love — by your life, I swear you shall be the shepherd of my sheep — Israel.’” (Shemot Rabbah 2:2)

It is not so much running with the wolves, but intuiting and protecting the sheep that defines the ideal greatness of Jewish leadership. Over the course of this year, Sh’ma will be exploring the ethics of Jewish leadership.  Many of the bulleted points will receive more extended attention in the regular installments of this significant series.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He has just published Gift of Soul, Gift of Wisdom: Spiritual Resources for Mentoring and Leadership.