From a Leadership of Privilege to a Leadership of Character

By Rabbi Dr. Effie Kleinberg 

Upon reaching the summit after an arduous climb, a bewildered elderly man was greeted by a young toddler atop the mountain’s peak. The man questioned the young boy: “I dedicated years of training and this journey to finally reach the summit, how could someone at your stage manage to reach this place!?” The boy responded: “I did not climb the mountain, I was born right here on the summit.”

The parable above is attributed to the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter), one of the central leaders of the “Ger” (Góra Kalwaria) Hasidic community in Poland over 100 years ago. In 1866, then 19 year-old Yehuda Leib Alter was tapped to assume the role of Rebbe – the singular spiritual leader of the tens-of-thousands strong community, a role that Alter would officially begin a few years later. When asked how he had attained the highest leadership position in the community at such a young stage of his life, he responded with the above parable of the man climbing the mountain. The young toddler in the parable was Rabbi Alter, who without any effort of his own was “born on the top of the mountain.” Herein, Rabbi Alter noted that he was the spiritual beneficiary of his saintly grandfather’s life of struggle to reach “the top of the mountain” upon which he was born.

Rabbi Alter was a brilliant Talmudic thinker and homiletician; posthumously, he had numerous volumes of his insights published. Accounts of his heroic leadership and the impact he made on throngs of followers and students have been subsequently recorded and disseminated. He served as a faithful shepherd to his flock. As deserving as he may have been in filling the role of spiritual leader, the notion of a ‘leadership of privilege’ emerges as an unintended paradigm of the parable. Without the hard work of his grandfather who preceded him, Rabbi Alter may never have been granted the opportunity to become the leader of his community. At the very least, he would have been required to prove himself, engage on his own trek up the mountain, and in all likelihood wait in line with the best of the rest, watching on as elderly and more experienced individuals be given the keys to the head office before him.

Numerous Biblical and Rabbinic texts point to the hierarchical nature of Jewish society. One passage relevant to this discussion states: “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of monarchy – but the crown of a good name outweighs them all” (Mishna Avot 4:13). Strangely, the text lists four crowns, yet the opening line references only three! What are these crowns and what can the way in which they are presented in the Rabbinic text teach us about leadership?

The first three “crowns” share a common feature in their relation to privilege. Monarchies throughout Jewish history functioned based on a hereditary system. The king’s throne was not open to just any individual in society, but rather one was ‘born on top of the mountain’ to have a path to the throne. The same was true for the priesthood; One who was born into the ancestral family of the Biblical character Aaron who served as high priest during the Jewish people’s sojourn in the desert, was imbued with a status of the priesthood, a respected social position that was thrust upon a particular group within the nation. Last, the crown of Torah manifest through the judges of the highest Jewish court (the sanhedrin), a body made up of the most brilliant minds and saintly individuals. Hence, the crown of Torah was reserved for society’s elite scholars.

The first three crowns in the passage represent models of ‘leadership of privilege’, positions granted to individuals gifted with either the authority (monarchy), familial association (priesthood), or intellectual capacity (Torah) to bear a “crown.” By contrast, the fourth crown in the list, the crown of a good name, represents a ‘leadership of character.’ This crown is not gifted to a specific individual or group, but rather is open to all, and represents leadership which can be achieved by anyone. The modern-day phrase “a crowning achievement,” underscores the notion that the “crown” of a good name is placed upon oneself as opposed to the first three “crowns.” This final crown outweighs the others, thereby standing alone in importance and addressing the issue of who may be a leader. Indeed, one need not be born into a context of privilege to find an avenue within Jewish society to lead and make an impact.

Leadership opportunities should be available to one and all, and the Jewish world cannot afford to rely solely on leaders ‘born on top of the mountain.’ After all, what ultimately makes a leader a leader is their character, as the Rabbinic saying concluded, “the crown of a good name outweighs them all.”

Rabbi Dr. Effie Kleinberg serves as Educational Director at Forum for Jewish Leadership, an organization focused on developing the next generation of strong future Jewish leaders around the globe. Rabbi Kleinberg holds a doctorate in educational technology from Yeshiva University and worked as an educator in North America for close to 10 years. He currently resides with his family in Ra’anana, Israel.