When we think of what we want most in our leaders, there is the temptation to think about their credentials and titles as indicators of their core ability to take the helm in any given situation. We turn to their public speaking and charismatic presence, or their following and prestige, as signals of a latent leadership capabilities. We may in some way feel more confident with someone who is charismatic, wealthy, physically strong, or good looking. These external effects, so easy to absorb, are also a bulwark against knowing the inner qualities of the person. It is apparent that we should not be so quick to deign someone a leader simply because their rhetorical skills are above par, nor should we judge someone based on their position of authority. The words of the Torah are clear, that in choosing leadership to follow and support the primary characteristic should be compassion.
Our obligation to the next generation is to embody the leadership we want to see in the broader world. If our normative expectations for leaders is cynical, then we will become cynical in turn. If we aspire to greatness, then our leaders should truly reflect those desires. But becoming a leader who leads with compassion is a nebulous proposition. What is the right way to go about this sacred task?
One of the most pressing contemporary challenges that stymies effective leadership, in particular for those occupying the higher echelons of politics, business, and, indeed, religion, is a lack of a universal compassion for those affected by decisions emanating out of boardrooms, pulpits, and conference rooms. Too often, the struggle to cultivate a singular conception of empathy when dealing with untold numbers of people inhibits the decision-making process. As the renowned recording artist Herbie Hancock pithily says: “You can’t buy compassion.”
You can’t buy it. It has to grow inside of you, a manifestation of our best selves. Consider this midrashic passage about the dimensions of what makes a leader truly compassionate:
Our rabbis have said that when Moses our rabbi, peace be upon him, was shepherding Yitro’s flock in the wilderness, a kid escaped. He ran after it until he reached a shady place. When he reached the shady place, he happened upon a pool of water where the goat was standing, drinking. When Moses reached it he said, ‘I had not known that you had run away because of thirst. You must be tired.’ He placed it on his shoulder and walked back. The Holy Blessed One said: ‘You have shown compassion in guiding a flock belonging to a mortal; so, by your life, you should shepherd my flock, Israel’ (Exodus Rabbah 2:2).
But what did Moses do that was so extraordinary? Carrying a goat back to his flock? How is that a righteous display of compassion?
At that moment, Moses, already destined for great wonders, elevates—quite literally—a creature from a moment of abject weakness. There is no reciprocity in the act; the goat could not do the same act for Moses. Through this simple act, Moses not only displayed what it means to bring oneself to the level of another in a weaker position than oneself, but he also raised the stakes for kindness in the world. If even the greatest leader of the Jewish people—an exemplar for untold billions of people throughout history—could be bothered to care for one sick goat, then certainly this generation of leaders can break out of the self-perpetuating cycle of only looking out for one’s interests. Naturally, shying away from showing sensitivity to others is not a mark of strength. It is weakness at its most potent. The void created by not displaying compassion highlights how far most of us have to go to become successful, effective leaders.
To lead and create lasting change, one must be wise, strategic, and cunning. Otherwise, nothing can be accomplished. To be sure, chesed (kindness) must be balanced with gevurah (strength). Becoming a moral leader, however, one must embody the realms of compassion and we see far more leaders struggling today with too much gevurah and not enough chesed. This is how the greatest Jewish leaders in history were chosen. If Moses didn’t care about his flock, could he have cared about the Israelite nation? If David wasn’t able to tend to the needs of his sheep, could he have adjudicated as the wisest king of Israel, the progenitor of the messianic ages?
In the Book of Isaiah, it says: “Sing, O heavens, and be joyful, O earth, and break forth into singing, O mountains; for the Lord has comforted God’s people, and has compassion upon the afflicted” (49:13). Leaders, in their ideal state, dedicate their lives to helping to lift up others. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: “’When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” When deciding ourselves who to follow, support, or hire, we might ask ourselves who is most compassionate.
As the nature of meaningful leadership collapses in front of our eyes, we have to consider going beyond the veneer of looking the part of the leader and look inward, to the parts of ourselves that seek greater opportunities for our communities and the most vulnerable struggling to find inspiration in dire circumstances. We need maturity to see this clearly and experience to make it tangible. Forgoing compassion is a great expense our society cannot afford.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.