“We know the Torah is truth. Therefore, in order to determine the right path, we have to look for truth in a leader.” – Rabbi Hayim Shimon Wahrman, of Manhattan’s Millinery Center Synagogue
What makes a good leader? Truthfulness.
In Devarim, the Torah states that the best leaders are genuine prophets: “A prophet will Hashem, thy God, raise up unto thee…unto him ye shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). Therefore, because a true prophet is the best leader and a true prophet’s words always become fulfilled, a leader’s most crucial characteristic must be the degree by which his or her predictions, expectations, and pronouncements eventually prove themselves true.
In fact, truthfulness is a requirement for leadership. Consider the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, where a boy, for the sake of attention, cried for help to be saved from a non-existent wolf. Then, when a wolf really did arrive to shadow the boy, all ignored the boy’s cries for help because they assumed he was again acting.
With that social lesson in mind, consider that whenever the words of a leader are proven wrong, such a leader stops, in a de facto manner, being a leader. After all, if any leader were to lie, renege, or even misstep, his or her followers would lose at least a measure of their faith. And whenever any group or nation loses faith in its leader, it is harder for such a leader, even when he or she has plotted a truly good course, to get others to follow his or her commands.
To compensate for this lack of faith, such a tarnished leader must, to harness followers, use physical force or some other inappropriate long-run technique of coercion.
Relatedly, parshat Mattot starts with a divine command directed to the leaders of the tribes (Num. 30:2). Namely, leaders are to keep to their word. One reason this command is first directed to leaders is that, again, if leaders do not keep to their word, they are de facto no longer leaders.
Because leadership will always be fleeting when leaders are unable to make flawless pronouncements, it becomes clear why the Torah deems the best leaders to be true prophets, who never lie and are never wrong when speaking in God’s name. In such prophets one can put one’s complete faith and thereby completely follow.
Actually, as the point of leadership is to take a group of followers to some destination, a true prophet cannot help but be a leader because, via true prophecy, the expected destination is always reached. Conversely, a false or mistaken leader naturally misses the destination and thereby negates the point of leadership.
(I recently had a conversation about this subject with Rebbetzin Gitty Fishelis, eldest granddaughter of gadol hador Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and daughter of Rabbi Dovid Feinstein. She agreed that there is an obvious need for all of Am Yisrael to pray for the return of navuah, prophecy, because without the guidance of genuine prophets, Am Yisrael will invariably make mistakes.)
Similarly, but from another perspective, many accounts in the Tanach relate true but unpopular visions of genuine prophets. In fact, sometimes a prophet with a bitter but necessary message became a victim of the people’s wrath because they did not want to hear hard-to-swallow truths. Nonetheless, it’s always better if a true prophet, no matter how unpopular the message, is the leader. After all, the truth of an unpopular vision will ultimately make itself known, and in the manner of a stitch in time saving nine it’s far better for a society to have been prepared for the difficult eventuality.
Outside the Fifth Avenue entrance of Manhattan’s main public library, a secular institution, there is the following engraved maxim: “But above all things, truth beareth away the victory.” So we see that while this article’s points about leadership have been made primarily in religious terms, they can also be appreciated by secularists and unbelievers.
After all, even those who may not believe in prophets – and thereby think it impossible to achieve a 100 percent accuracy rate – would readily accept that someone whose words are, in the end, demonstrably more true would have a greater claim on leadership.
Even more than secularists or unbelievers, Christians who follow biblical teachings certainly can understand that they – as do God-fearing Jews – have a religious obligation to consider a leader’s most important qualification to be trustworthiness.