In the kiruv world, we have so misused and dumbed down the “leadership” word that it is now virtually meaningless. It is an extra adjective that we slap onto programs when we want them to sound good. We call students who are recruiters “leaders.” We call Israel trips, summits and other events as leadership events, without always having thought through what the definition of a leader is and how that would be applied and measured in this or that situation.
Before I venture a definition of leadership, I want to propose what leadership is not. Management is not leadership, although it is a sub-heading of leadership. Management is a necessary skill if you are running an organization or if you are responsible for others. But, you can be a great manager and a lousy leader, and, you can be a great leader and a lousy manager.
So, having lost a valuable word (‘leadership’), I want to use three others and briefly explore how they might apply to us as mekarvim. These words are:
- Responsibility taker
I believe these words will lead to a better definition of what leadership means. We need all three elements in combination. But let’s first consider them separately.
A leader is someone who has an influence on others on an ongoing basis. If you influence anyone, or more than one person on an occasional basis then you were a leader on those occasions.
However the real influence of a leader is to get buy-in by others on his vision. People need to share that vision, be enthused by it and be empowered by it. For many of the larger kiruv organizations around the world, this is the single most lacking element of leadership requirements.
A leader is someone who is not a status quo person. He is interested in transformation as a guiding principle of his life. Whatever organization, community or society he is a part of, he never wants to simply provide service, but rather to leave a new, improved and/or expanded version.
To transform, one has to of course, have a vision of what you are transforming to. People get the “vision thing” wrong. They think a vision means some impossibly grand idea. Rather a vision is what you would hope to see in around 15 years when walking into the organization that will make you say, “The last 15 years of my life were really worthwhile.”
A vision does not have to be an earth-shattering vision, but it is something that guides a significant part of your life. In the pursuit of that vision you are not, in the words of David Brooks, focused on ‘resume virtues’ but rather on ‘eulogy virtues.’  The former allow you to climb up the organizational ladder, prove that you doubled your Olami targets and make you highly desirable by any kiruv organization. The latter, however, are what you want to be remembered by – what you will have contributed to the field. We know, says Brooks, that eulogy virtues are more important but we spend most of our time on resume virtues.
A leader takes responsibility. This is probably the single most-important attribute of a leader. He sees that something needs to be done and he does it. He is the one who puts the siddurim away after dovening – without any expectation of receiving praise or recognition or of landing a position as a result. Just because it needs to be done.
This is a vital point. Because it means that leadership does not require a formal position in the organizational hierarchy. Rather, a leader is anyone who takes responsibility for anything that also conforms with the previous two points – for anything that influences others towards transformation. The motive for wanting to take responsibility should be that it was important and that it needed to be done.
Other Non-Leadership Traits
A person may be very creative and come up with all kinds of new ideas. A person may be a fabulous fundraiser and take care of a whole institution. A person may have a fantastic entrepreneurial spirit and start up all kinds of new programs. A person may be a super-star mekarev. But none of these is what being a leader means.
A New-Old Definition of Leadership
Now let’s combine these elements:
- Transformer with a vision
- Responsibility taker
A leader is someone who has a transformational vision for which he takes responsibility; he is able to then get the buy-in of others to join him in his vision and is able, together with those others to turn that vision into a means of transformation in ever increasing concentric circles.
Let’s put this differently. A leader is someone who, instead of making an ordinary response to an issue, takes an extra-ordinary approach with a view to make the world a better place. In so doing, he is not drawing his standards from the broader environment. He is rather determining his behavior by the objective need matched to his own qualities. Doing this will usually not happen as a matter of course. You have to consciously choose to take responsibility. What comes naturally is what most people do about these situations – which is nothing.
This is why I believe that true leadership is a learned behavior and not a natural one. It is the more risky behavior, not the safe one. It is the often the mad, irrational not advised behavior; not the sane one.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the Education Director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and a senior advisor to Olami. Many of Rabbi Edelstein’s foundational publications addressing the world of Kiruv appear on OlamiResources.com: Series on Kiruv and Chinuch, Commentary on Chumash and Yom Tovim, The Laws of Outreach, as well as contributing articles.