Wednesday, / July 17, 2024

A Philosophy of Servant Leadership

Today, 3 Tammuz, we present the first of 12 essays that were published in the Lubavitch International Journal, Thirty Years: A Deeper Look, honoring the Rebbe’s legacy.

On an initial reading, Ve-atah Tetzaveh, the last of the Rebbe’s monographs published under his supervision*, appears to be a nearly autobiographical statement of his lifework. Growing a committed Jewry in postwar America required a devotion to his flock in exile, and a true love and appreciation for his people. As an educator and newly appointed head of a large Jewish day school, I read it with interest. 

Returning to the discourse after an unprecedented and challenging year, however, I was drawn to some of the more radical points embedded in the work. I found the Rebbe’s words deeply resonant and novel.

Opening with the paradigmatic leader, Moses, the Rebbe calls him the “head” of his people. Yet a head can go only as far as the mobility of its feet. And so, with Moses serving as their head, the people carry, elevate, and increase the reach of their leader. This interdependence is striking in the Rebbe’s reading: through Moses’ binding of the people to G-d, Moses himself becomes fully realized as a leader, extending his reach and capacity to lead.

I have often thought about the interdependence that exists within a school, where diffused leadership is the most effective, and where a leader can demonstrate success only when a school or program continues on without their presence. I’ve also thought about how it is the students who realize the mission of the teachers, carrying their education forward into the world, extending and expanding their teachers’ legacy.

Later in the work, the Rebbe focuses on the leader not only as a faithful shepherd of his people, but as a shepherd who stewards faith—and, in so doing, nourishes and sustains faith. This form of leadership, as nurturing and believing in his people, inverts the roles of the leader and followers so that the responsibility is not on the people to follow, but on the leader to fan the flames of his people’s faith.

The Rebbe, in my reading, distinguishes between faith in an unknown and inaccessible transcendent reality and a faith in one’s own, embodied, immanent, divine self. Accordingly, the role of the leader is to inspire a faith, literally, in the divine self of each and every person. Perhaps this is not such a radical teaching to the initiates of Chabad. 

As an outsider, however, what I find so remarkable is the way this approach privileges an intuited, tangible, and very human faith over faith that only the soul knows and that the mind trusts. As an educator, too, I know how important it is to both challenge and support students and faculty to realize their own potential: students need to know that leaders believe in their worthiness and ability to succeed, as do the adults mentored and supported on their professional journeys.

As an outsider, however, what I find so remarkable is the way this approach privileges intuited, tangible, and very human faith over faith that only the soul knows and that the mind trusts.

At the core of this work is the premise that faith in one’s divine self is nurtured by a leader and realized by a people during some of the most oppressive and crushing moments of diasporic Jewry. This, no doubt, is an autobiographical statement of the Rebbe’s belief in his people’s ability—especially given the challenges of the Holocaust and the subsequent comforts of the American diaspora—not only to aspire to faith or self-sacrifice when things are hard, but to sustain such a faith and ethos when things are comfortable, too.  

The Rebbe contrasts the transcendent revelation at Mount Sinai, when the people received the Torah, with the Babylonian exile, the time of Queen Esther and Mordechai, when, under an existential threat, the Jewish people reaffirmed their faith in G-d. The event at Sinai required no absolution of the self—just an absolute submission—whereas the events described in Megillat Esther stimulated a moment of true self-realization. And yet the latter’s sensibility of sacrifice for the mission, the Rebbe insists, must be maintained even when one is not literally crushed by the exile.

When the people are beaten down by historic forces, when pressure is applied and the response is a commitment by a self to one’s faith, then, paradoxically, one also realizes a faith in one’s own abilities, a faith in one’s own self. In my reading, it is a paradox central to the entire work, one that the Rebbe analogizes to the crushed olives that provide oil and illumination of the Temple’s menorah. 

His philosophy of leadership, of a leader who serves his people by nourishing a faith in their own abilities, especially when they are at their lowest point, is the paradigm of servant leadership. Such leadership refuses to see employees as means to an end, instead shouldering the responsibility to elicit the best in them, so that they bring their best selves to work. And in a school, this form of leadership is crucial: when a school leader contributes to their staff, it is the students who are the primary beneficiaries. 

The Rebbe saw such a model of selfless leadership in his father-in-law’s fostering of Jewish life under Soviet oppression. Now, thirty years since the Rebbe’s passing, it is also the Rebbe’s leadership that continues to nourish faith during an extraordinarily challenging time for world Jewry. 

In my own work, I have found that not only does an educator who believes in his students extend and expand the reach of the teacher—the empowered student, too, advances the teacher’s mission, nourishing that faith in himself and in all whom he encounters. 

Hillel Broder is the Head of School at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland. He previously served as Principal of DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the CUNY Graduate Center, an M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University, and a B.A. in English from Yeshiva University. He studied with and was granted rabbinic ordination by Rabbi Ari Enkin of Ramat Beit Shemesh.

*Published in English as Nurturing Faith (Brooklyn: Kehot, 2005).

Comment 2
  • Leah Chava Hertzberg

    Scholarly, complex, well written with personal anecdotes. Befitting if a head of school. A privilege to read at a time when Ivy League presidents struggle with what should be the simple and obvious and plagiarism. This article and the book it is written about demand greater consideration and review, based on these perspectives. To encourage greater thought and curiosity is also a prime role of an educator and more so a principal!

  • Leah Chava Hertzberg Please use this version with typo corrected

    Scholarly, complex, well written with personal anecdotes. Befitting of a head of school. A privilege to read at a time when Ivy League presidents struggle with what should be the simple and obvious and plagiarism. This article and the book it is written about demand greater consideration and review, based on these perspectives. To encourage greater thought and curiosity is also a prime role of an educator and more so a principal!

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