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What makes a good leader?

Rabbi 2 Rabbi

Like Moses, leadership requires a balance between competence and humility, and the ability to learn from and utilize the talents of those being led


Rabbi Avi Finegold

Founder, The Jewish Learning Lab, Montreal

Rabbi Philip Scheim

Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, Toronto


Rabbi Finegold: I would like to begin by congratulating your on your new position at the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, a well-deserved high honour. I’d also like to use this opportunity to reflect on the buzzword du jour: leadership.

In truth, I find myself struggling with the concept of leadership. I recognize it is something that can certainly be taught, but also feel that not everyone can learn it, and that if everyone is a leader, then no one is.

What is your approach to leadership, both within your congregation and now at the international level?

Rabbi Scheim: Thank you, Avi, for the very kind wishes. I remember decades ago, when the already very aged Rabbi Louis Finkelstein was honoured at a United Synagogue convention, his first words were: “I am unworthy.” Here was one of the pre-eminent Jewish historians of the 20th century, leader of the Conservative movement during its pinnacle years of achievement, featured on the cover of Time magazine, proclaiming his humility.

Rabbi Finkelstein would never have compared himself to Moses, but it is noteworthy that Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest leader ever, was described in the Torah as “the most humble person on earth.” I would not posit humility as the primary characteristic of leadership – since that would evoke the classical Jewish joke of “look who thinks he is a nobody!” – but I do believe that a good leader cannot take him or herself too seriously, must be self-critical and open to criticism, and willing to learn from others.

Incredibly poor models of leadership are front and centre in the current U.S. election campaign. I would say that a balance between competence and humility is necessary for one to be able to lead successfully.

Rabbi Finegold: I am glad you brought up Moses, as he has been at the centre of my thinking through all of this.

One of the central features of his skills as a leader was the ability to recognize and embrace his own flaws. If Moshe had been more like the current crop of leadership hopefuls you mention, he would not plead for admission to the Land of Israel, but rather claim that he had done nothing wrong and it was a grave injustice to be denied what was his right to begin with.

Leadership seems to be the ability to lead not just despite, but because of one’s flaws and imperfections.

Yet the humility you mention seems to be completely absent from current trends in leadership training.

Implicit in much leadership training is that there are people who are seeking leadership and want to learn how to be leaders. I feel as if the one lesson taught by God at the Burning Bush Leadership Conference was “Don’t try and be a leader. Let leadership find you.”

I feel like our community pushes people into leadership as a way to reward them for community involvement. Perhaps we are missing something. Maybe some people are meant to be excellent followers.

Rabbi Scheim: In order to lead, one has to be prepared to exemplify the ideals and values of the institution he serves, while respecting and supporting those not yet at that level of commitment. Thus, a leader of a non-profit organization has to be willing to contribute financially to the full extent of his capability. Only then can he encourage others to be supportive. A congregational rabbi, technically, is no more religiously obligated to do mitzvot than any of his congregants, but will still rightly be expected to exemplify the high water-mark level of observance. 

One who assumes a leadership role should seek to learn from those who “follow.” The leader may have specific skills that not all his followers possess, but those he leads will have talents and capabilities from which even the most capable leader can learn. Thus, I would agree that followers, too, have their responsibilities, in keeping their leaders both on task and sufficiently humble, so that their leaders won’t lose sight of their limitations and their need to rely on others for the strength and insight necessary to be worthy of the responsibilities entrusted to them.


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