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Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

Responsible leadership urgently required

Dedicated for a Refuah Shelemah for Elisabeth Bat Maisha

People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.

John Maxwell

The question of “leadership” is never far from the headlines. We have recently had cause to deliberate this for three high profile public figures, specifically relating to not only their own conduct and judgement, but the responsibility they shoulder for the conduct and judgement displayed by those colleagues under their charge.

Boris Johnson, our Prime Minister and the now famous “parties” held at No.10 at the height of the pandemic, seemingly organized without his knowledge by his staff.

Prince Andrew accused of impropriety with a then 17-year-old, seemingly led astray whilst socializing with the now infamous Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.

Novak Djokovic, arguable one of the greatest sports heroes of our time attempting to enter Australia under the guidance of staff to circumvent vaccination requirements.

The issues raised seem to be twofold. Firstly, the standard we expect or demand of our leaders. No person and no leader, even Moses the greatest of all leaders, is perfect. Every leader that has ever walked the face of the earth was human with their own foibles and faults. It is inevitable as they are called upon to make thousands of decisions and judgement calls every day that sooner or later errors occur. For Napoleon, his fateful invasion of Russia which continued into the harsh Russian winter led to his defeat and his undoing. For Hitler, it was prioritizing the Final solution ahead of the war against the Allies that contributed to his downfall.

Underlying fundamental errors made by some of our greatest leaders has been their steadfast refusal to listen to dissenting voices. Their ego centered perceptions prevented them listening to constructive advice or criticism. One of the hallmarks of outstanding leaders in our history has been a humility and growth-oriented approach to their lives. No one exhibited this more than Moses, the humblest of men, who having led the Jewish people out of Egypt through the splitting Sea and the experience of conversing with G-d first hand, was still willing to take on board the criticism his father-in-law raised regarding the established Judicial system. Great leaders must be willing to surround themselves with advisors that offer differing perspectives to their own and the courage to listen those different voices.

A second key aspect of leadership which is all too often missing is the acceptance of responsibility. The classic Biblical example of this is King Saul in his battle against the evil Amalekites. Saul failed to heed the clear instructions of Samuel to totally eradicate the Amalekites. When confronted by Samuel over his failure, rather than accept responsibility, he chose to blame his soldiers for this mishap. It was this failure to accept responsibility that brought about his downfall. From a Torah perspective, a leader is expected to take responsibility for everything that is clearly within their remit. Never was this more clearly illustrated than by Moses. In the immediate aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people were facing extinction by G-d for their transgression, G-d planned to start anew with a nation descending from Moses. Moses’s response was breath-taking. He dared to audaciously argue with G-d making it clear that if  G-d intend to wipe out the Jewish people then He should also “wipe me out of Your book”.

Moses would have been completely justified in following G-d’s wishes standing aside and leaving his people to face the fatal consequences of their betrayal and misdeeds. Instead, Moses courageously stood in front of his people to protect them, refusing to move and taking responsibility as leader and begged on their behalf for forgiveness. Rabbi Sacks famously stated “a good leader creates followers, a great leader creates leaders.” Moses, saw the people had not upheld the moral standards expected of them and this, he felt, was a reflection on him as their leader and therefore he took responsibility. Leadership is recognizing that the success and failures of one’s followers are a reflection on the quality of that leadership. 

As we approach in the coming week which includes Holocaust Memorial Day, I am reminded of a Jewish leader who truly exemplified these ideals. Janus Korczak, prior to the war, was a famed children’s’ author, paediatrician and founder of an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw drawn to the plight of underprivileged.

In 1940 he and the orphanage were driven into the Warsaw ghetto. In 1942 the order came to transport them to Treblinka. Korczak was offered the chance to escape, but he refused, and in one of the most poignant moments of those years, he walked with his 200 orphans through the streets of Warsaw to the train that took them to the gates of death, inseparable from them to the end.

The emergence of leaders willing and able to take responsibility in all senses, will in turn create a society where we too take responsibility for our actions, leading to better decisions being made in the first instance by us all.

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker.
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