Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was a self-aware leader. He thought and cared about the challenge of leadership. He even dedicated a book to the subject, Lessons in Leadership, including a foreword by leadership guru, Ronald Heifetz, author of Leadership On The Line.
Rabbis Sacks once said he was particularly drawn to the book’s subtitle, How To Lead In Dangerous Times, which very honestly reflected the stresses and strains of leading. His openness about his own challenges was what made his leadership so accessible and empowering. But how did Rabbi Sacks become a leader and what can we learn from it?
For those involved in assuming responsibility at any level, this is an important question. As the leader of London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), where Rabbi Sacks was principal and maintained a strong bond, this question motivates me deeply.
When he was young, he did not imagine leadership was his calling. His journey began with a fortuitous meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who urged him to step up and assume responsibility within the Cambridge student community.
The Rebbe also modelled to him true humility or bitul hayesh, the nullification of the self, which Rabbi Sacks frequently referenced: “It is not about the ego, it’s about the duty.” After meeting the Rebbe, he went on to study for semicha at Jews’ College (now known as LSJS), continuing there as a lecturer alongside his communal career as rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue.
In his early writings, we see a feisty and sometimes frustrated young leader, establishing his credentials. He was unafraid to challenge established norms, such as the wearing of canonicals and not challenging your community’s religiosity.
As he assumed the Chief Rabbinate, his leadership became even more bold and visionary, launching a ‘decade of renewal’ that, for the most part, he was able to realise.
He oversaw the proliferation of initiatives and organisations unseen before in the community, such as Jewish continuity, as well as the building of more than 20 new Jewish schools and a burgeoning of Jewish pride.
His leadership was encouraging and inclusive – as he said in his installation address: “I cannot nor will I ever try to, lead alone… let us become joint architects of this Anglo-Jewish future.”
He was a meticulous planner, a voracious reader and worked in harmony with his loyal team despite, by his own admission, not being a “people person”.
He modelled good leadership by listening to people who had the qualities he lacked. He had the humility to admit a mistake and learn from it.
In later years he became an increasingly broad religious leader, widening his messages to respond to global challenges. In Lessons in Leadership, he draws on both his life experience and the lives of the characters in Tanach to teach seven core principles of leadership. His unique gift was to show the absolute relevance of our tradition to key issues facing society.
Although he began as a reluctant and frustrated leader, Rabbi Sacks grew to become bold and visionary, humble and reflective, empowering and inspiring. He was one of Anglo-Jewry’s great leaders and we will always be grateful. Many of us want to continue in his derech, his approach. As he said after his life-changing encounter with the Rebbe: “Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders. That was the Rebbe’s greatness.”
Rabbis Sacks enabled many Jewish leaders, myself included, and we will endeavour to empower others, as he taught us.
- Joanne Greenaway, CEO of LSJS, taught as part of the recent Torah of Rabbi Sacks course and is running The Fifth Commandment and Parent-Child Dynamics Today every Thursday in June. To find out more, visit www.lsjs.ac.uk