Lord Sacks, who until 2013 was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has been pondering the kind of leadership he believes is required to help navigate our current uncertain and troubling times.

The Rabbi has concluded that, in the unpredictable world in which we live, we do not so much need take-charge, proactive, get-the-job-done leaders, as we need leaders who are teachers.


If we are to negotiate the coming years safely, we may need a new kind of leadership. To put it more precisely, we need the rediscovery of an ancient kind of leadership that has rarely been given the prominence it deserves. I mean the leader as teacher.

Rabbi Sacks suggests that the great leaders of the past have all been great communicators.

The great leaders have been teachers, among them Roosevelt, Churchill, Ben Gurion, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. They spent inordinate amounts of time reading, thinking, learning, writing, studying the past and its lessons the better to understand the future and its challenges. And then they taught. They made speeches, they wrote articles and books, coined vivid phrases and told stories so that people would understand the long journey that lay ahead and the sacrifices they might have to make along the way.

They appealed to people’s altruism. They made sure that the sacrifices were borne equally and that everyone contributed. They had no patience for people intent on their own advantage at the cost of others. They didn’t seek miracles or make promises they couldn’t keep. They knew that the only way successfully to negotiate change is to educate the people, trust them, empower them and speak to the better angels of their nature. They taught. And they were tireless.

The leader as teacher is a lovely and provocative suggestion. I do not anticipate seeing such a vision capturing the popular organizational imagination in my lifetime.

The skills of the true teacher are not the skills our culture values.

To become a visionary teacher requires time alone, time to engage seriously and deeply with the thoughts of the wise ones from the past. Wisdom does not easily or quickly surrender its riches to the casual passerby. To plumb the depths of wisdom demands patience and calm. The wise leader knows when to step away from busy activism to gain new insight and seek a bigger perspective. True leadership is nurtured in the desert.

The world of smart phones, texting and tweeting is antithetical to the disciplines of silence, listening, and spaciousness that are the fruitful ground from which great leadership emerges.

It takes courage to unplug and walk away from the chatter and clutter of our culture.

We live in a confusing world. Change happens at lightening speed. It is impossible to keep up with the flow of information and the shifts that take place almost every day in the world community. It seems at times we stand on the brink of some great cataclysm.

Ancient Jewish tradition has a legend according to which

Every day an angel goes out from the presence of the Holy One to destroy the world and to turn it back to what it used to be. But once the Holy One observes young children in their schools and disciples of the wise in their houses of study, His anger immediately turns into mercy.

Putting aside the image of an angry God, the legend holds out the profound possibility that the world is held back from the brink of disaster by the efforts of those who take time to ponder and study.

Perhaps the way forward in tumultuous times lies with those who step aside for a moment and penetrate the deep wisdom of the past, to find the way to be truly human in the present.