The Leading Edge

Hal Lewis

Jewish leadership expert Dr. Hal M. Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute, on Judaism, leaders, and leadership.

The Leading Edge

What is Jewish leadership?

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 Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, his books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.

When people learn that I am the President of an Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, they often ask, "What is Jewish leadership? Does such a thing really exist?" To me, 'Jewish leadership' refers to the principles and tenets found in Jewish sourcesclassical and contemporaryhoned and fine-tuned in Jewish communities over the millennia, which address such things as: the use and abuse of power, authority, effective decision making, collaboration, leadership ethics, succession planning, training, and the like. In my view, those who lead have much to learn from exploring these principles, whether or not they are Jewish, or whether they work in a Jewish organization, a corporate setting, or an entrepreneurial start-up.

Central to Judaism's understanding of effective leadership is the matter of definition. The Hebrew word for leadership is manhigut. Like many Hebrew words, manhigut derives from a three-letter root, in this case n-h-g, meaning behavior. Simply stated, Jewish sources understand leadership as being about behavior. While it may not seem like much, I would argue that this linguistic insight provides a framework for answering some of the biggest leadership questions of our day:

  • Where does leadership come from?
  • What constitutes effective leadership?
  • Who is eligible to lead?
  • Are leaders bound to an ethical standard different from the rest of us?
  • Can leaders be made (trained) or are they born to lead? 

A worldview that defines leadership as behavior stands in sharp contrast to one that conflates leadership with rank or title or position. Similarly, linking leadership to behavior offers a different approach than one that equates leadership with wealth, physical attributes, personality traits, or gender.

Here's an experiment you might want to run at home, at the office and in your community work as well. Consider the degree to which things would be different in your company or communal organization, or in the world-at-large, if leadership were defined as behavior. To that end, complete the following sentence: If leadership is about behavior, then …

When I try this exercise, reflecting on some of the major issues I observe on a regular basis, I note the following: 

  • If leadership is about behavior, then wealth, gender or age would not be defining criteria for those who lead.
  • If leadership is about behavior, then organizations, including nonprofit groups, would invest heavily in training future leaders.
  • If leadership is about behavior, then a leader's ethics would be at least as important as her productivity.
  • If leadership is about behavior, then risk-taking, change, and bold decision-making, not worship of consensus, fear of criticism, and the obsessive desire to be loved, would define leaders of our generation.
  • If leadership is about behavior, then service to followers would be more important than blind loyalty to party or ideology.

 While it would be a mistake to say that only Jewish sources hold this view, the Hebrew word manhigut articulates an approach to leadership that contrasts sharply with popular understandings of leadership, unfortunately even within the Jewish community. In the weeks ahead consider how leadership is defined in your organization. Do we use leadership to describe a person's behavior or her place in the organizational chart? What specific behaviors do you associate with effective leadership? What happens when leadership is used to refer to something other than behavior?

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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