From a very young age, whether explicitly or implicitly, I believe I was taught that to be a leader means to be brash and bombastic. Unafraid to take charge in a situation, the leader in various youth to young adult settings was the person who often had the loudest voice. In this month though, where we honor the leaders who have dignified one of the greatest offices in our land, let us look to our tradition to frame a different way to look at leadership, that of presence and empathy.
In the vast swaths of the Mishnah that detail the minutiae of the Temple service, there is a profound teaching (2:2) in the tractate of Middot that illustrates how the worship took place:
“All who would enter the temple mount entered toward the right, and would encircle it and exit through the left, aside for one to which something unfavorable has occurred, that he would encircle it towards the left [even when he entered]. [If he was asked] ‘Why are you encircling towards the left?’ [If he answered] ‘Because I am a mourner,’ [they would respond] ‘He who rests in this house should comfort you.’ [If he answered] ‘Because I am excommunicated,’ [they would respond] ‘He who dwells in this house should put into their [the judges’] hearts and they will draw you near.’”
Not only is this teaching transformative for what it illustrates about being welcoming for communities, but it also elucidates an important but elusive leadership concept. So often, when we are put in leadership positions, we are incredibly worried about our own ambition and drive. How do I look? How is my vision being implemented? Although this serves an important purpose, it also blocks our ability to look outward and think about the people we are serving.
In the Temple, everyone walked in the same direction except those people to whom misfortune had occurred. Instead of their flow in the room just being observed, we are told that those who were there asked them what amounts to “what is going on in your life right now?” In response to whatever their challenge was, some sort of empathy and concern was voiced. God should provide you comfort for whatever your situation is.
When we are leaders, this is how we should operate. Look around the room and see whose eyes are looking sorrowful. When you are at Kiddush the next time, find someone sitting alone at a table with their head down, and ask them how they are doing. The willingness to place others’ needs before our own is a true benchmark of leaders. It’s a simple step. All it takes is learning how to ask the right questions and listen.