T he topic of leadership has been at the forefront of my mind recently. Not the type of leadership that exists in the current political world, which causes us to shudder each day anew at the latest revelations and tweets emanating from the highest level of government.

Instead, I am referring to leadership of Klal Yisrael in general and the Torah world in particular.

What prompted this focus on leadership was a brief comment I heard from Maran Sar HaTorah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita. A recent trip to Eretz Yisrael afforded me the opportunity to enter Rav Chaim’s modest home for a few minutes of direction in several areas.

One of the questions I asked him was about Rav Aharon Leib Steinman ztz”l. I told Rav Chaim that I had been zocheh to give several hespedim on the gadol hador at various venues and share glimpses of his gadlus. I had another such hesped scheduled for 7 Adar in one of New York City’s largest yeshivah ketanahs, whose administrators planned to use the yahrtzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu as a backdrop for discussing what the loss of the gadol hador means to us.

“Which aspect of Rav Aharon Leib’s greatness should I emphasize to these tinokos shel beis rabban?” I asked Rav Chaim. “His greatness in Torah, his incredible bein adam l’chaveiro, or something else?”

Rav Chaim looked at me for a brief moment and said, “To be maspid the rosh yeshivah, ein lanu musag.” In other words, how can you even think you can be maspid him properly when we have no understanding of the depth of his greatness?

Caught off guard, I countered, “But Rebbi, I already agreed to speak about the rosh yeshivah, so what should I speak about?”

Rav Chaim responded, “Hu hayah manhig hador, v’achshav einenu. Klal Yisrael tzarich manhigim.” (Rav Aharon Leib was the leader of the generation, and now that he is no longer here, we need new leaders in Klal Yisrael.)

And so I received direction from the Sar HaTorah that I should speak about leadership in Klal Yisrael.

How does one become a leader in Klal Yisrael, especially when the position was previously held by a towering giant who was more of a malach than a basar vadam? I believe there are several factors that can set us on the right path.

First, we must know that we do not have to be at the level of the leaders of the previous generation in order to assume a position of leadership. Rav Yisroel Reisman illustrated this powerfully with the example of the September 11 tragedy, in which several hundred firefighters lost their lives. The fire department quickly promoted many rookie firefighters, who had just finished their training, and placed them in positions of leadership. How could they do that, when these rookies did not have the experience or qualifications? The answer is that when leadership is needed, even the plain folk have to step up and fill the vacuum at the top.

How can someone who is unprepared for leadership qualify for that position? The Telsher Rosh Yeshivah ztz”l provides the answer. There are two seemingly conflicting descriptions in the Torah of Yehudah’s personality. In the first pasuk in parshas Vayigash, we find Yehudah approaching Yosef, the viceroy of Egypt, and speaking to him harshly, as Rashi comments that he spoke “kashos.” Yet at the very end of the previous parshah, Mikeitz, when Yehudah approaches Yosef, Rashi comments that he spoke to him softly and humbly. Well, which one was it? Did Yehudah possess a strong personality or a meek one?

Rav Shimon Schwab, in Maayan Beis Hasho’eivah (Parshas Vayigash, p. 107) quotes his rebbi, Rav Yosef Leib Bloch, to explain the apparent divergent personalities Yehudah exhibited in his dealings with Yosef. Yehudah’s true, gentle nature was on display in Mikeitz. But once Yehuda realized that action had to be taken and that no one else was stepping up to the position of leadership, he did so. And at that moment, he was infused with a new strength and spirit he didn’t have before. Rav Bloch explains that if a person lacks the basic abilities or talents necessary for leadership, but steps up to the position anyway, he receives strengths and abilities that neither he nor anyone else realized he had. When there is a leadership vacuum, those who step in to fill the void will discover incredible abilities within them.

A second aspect of developing leaders is encouraging everyone to strive for greatness. The Chofetz Chaim used to say that a yeshivah bochur should take to heart the message of Napoleon, who would exhort his troops that a soldier who doesn’t aspire to be a general is not a soldier. Similarly, l’havdil, Rav Yisrael Salanter is quoted as having told his talmidim that he was only zocheh to become Rav Yisrael because in his youth, he wanted to be like the Vilna Gaon.

Many people are afraid to take on a leadership position because they fear they will make mistakes. It is clear from Chazal, however, that making mistakes does not render one unfit for leadership. Chazal (Shabbos 55b) tell us that there were only four people in history who never sinned: Binyamin, Amram, Yishai, and Kil’av ben David. Why aren’t these infallible people recognized as Klal Yisrael’s leaders, as are Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu? It’s because being perfect is not a prerequisite for leadership in Klal Yisrael. On the contrary, the fact that leaders make mistakes and yet continue to lead shows the extent of their mesirus nefesh and dedication, for despite the potential for missteps, they persist in serving Klal Yisrael.

A third element of leadership is the courage to disregard naysayers. Rav Meir Shapiro ztz”l told his talmidim that he came up with his idea of Daf Yomi already in his younger years, but when he shared it with his friends, they mocked him for his foolishness. Later in his life, after he was already renowned as the Lubliner Rav, whose Daf Yomi innovation had transformed Klal Yisrael, he visited his hometown and met these friends from his youth. “Do you realize that your derision almost convinced me to give up my idea of Daf Yomi?” he asked them. “Had I done so, Klal Yisrael would have lost out on a wealth of limud haTorah.” Leadership means not allowing the mockers and the naysayers (and yes, even the bloggers) to cause us to lose focus on our leadership goals.

Another important aspect of leadership is understanding that whatever you accomplish will likely go unappreciated by the people you are serving.

At the end of the Megillas Esther, the pasuk says that Mordechai, who had saved Klal Yisrael from Haman’s final solution and was now in a leadership position, was “ratzui l’rov echav.” Even after saving his people, he was accepted only by a majority of his brothers, not by all of them.

One of the most incredible things that Reb Leib, the oldest son of the Chofetz Chaim, shared in his memoirs of his saintly father has to do with not expecting appreciation for one’s efforts.

Reb Leib assisted his father in writing the Mishnah Berurah. Once, they worked painstakingly for hours on just one line of the Mishnah Berurah, until the Chofetz Chaim was finally satisfied with it. “Who will even appreciate all the work that went into this?” Reb Leib asked his father.

“What does it matter if no one knows?” the Chofetz Chaim responded. “Are we working for appreciation, or are we are working for the Ribbono shel Olam? He knows full well the extent of our efforts.”

The ultimate leadership in Klal Yisrael is when a person steps up to serve HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Klal Yisrael without expecting anything in return.

A final aspect of leadership is believing in your ability to effect change. Everyone on his level can change the world for the better, even if it’s for only one person.

Rav Noach Weinberg ztz”l, the founder of Aish HaTorah, was one of those few people in a generation who didn’t just make a change, but created a revolution. In an interview toward the end of his life, he shared what motivated him to take on the world: Chazal state that every person should say, “The world was created for me.” That doesn’t mean the world is all there for you to take. Rather, it means that the world was created for you to transform. And transform it he did.

Following Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s directive that Klal Yisrael needs leaders, I spoke to the young yeshivah students about leadership and about how the petirah of the manhig hador puts the responsibility on the youth, who are our future, to step up to the plate and strive to become the leaders of the next generation. I am sharing these thoughts on leadership with you, as well, in the hope that we can expand this conversation to Yidden of all ages and encourage more people to take on positions of leadership in their shul, yeshivah, or any other place where there is a void. Perhaps this would be the greatest thing we can do as a zechus for the irreplaceable Rav Aharon Leib ztz”l in his lofty place in Gan Eden.

(This article was written l’zecher nishmas Sarah Chaya bas Rav Aryeh Zev) 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 702. Rabbi Aryeh Z. Ginzberg is the rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center of Cedarhurst and the founding rav of Ohr Moshe Institute in Hillcrest, Queens. He is a published author of several sifrei halachah, and a frequent contributor to many magazines and newspapers, where he writes the Torah hashkafah on timely issues of the day. He is also a sought-after lecturer on Torah hashkafah at a variety of venues around the country.