You can’t walk around Valley Torah these days without thinking about leadership. It is literally staring you in the face, whether from the seven habits of highly effective people banners hanging on the wall on the first floor or from the ceiling on the second floor. However, I sometimes worry that our students think all we care about is that they lead and that there is no room for following. It makes sense since our students, like most people, at some point in their lives have likely been told to stop being a follower. How many times has a student heard from their parent “oh, so would you jump off a bridge just because (add Jewish name) did?” Let’s face it. Being a follower gets a bad wrap, yet, there is no leadership without followership. As Benjamin Hooks, the American civil rights leader and former director of the NAACP, is quoted as saying, “if you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk.”
In this week’s Parsha, Parshas Bo, the recently enslaved Jews head out of Egypt following Moshe into the desert on a journey that is to last 40 years before reaching Israel. What if the Jews did not leave? Would Moshe be considered the great leader of the Jewish people that he is known as today? Probably not. He would have been known as the person who took a long walk in the desert alone. That did not happen of course and there are many reasons why the Jews were ready to leave and follow Moshe. However, the choice to follow Moshe and more importantly follow Hashem was a critical and defining decision in the history of the Jewish people.
We must realize that when we are criticised growing up as being a follower it is generally, if not always, because we have chosen to follow the wrong person. Being a follower is critical to success, but only if you choose the right person to follow. In fact, being a follower may be more important at times than being a leader. I love how Derek Sivers puts it in his 2010 TedTalk “How to start a movement.” He states that “if you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow. And when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in.” Followership creates leadership.
There are times you must lead and there are times you must follow. Both are highly effective attributes of great people. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in his Covenant and Conversation parsha series on Parshas Kedoshim, “in Judaism followership is as active and demanding as leadership. We can put this more strongly: leaders and followers do not sit on opposite sides of the table. They are on the same side, the side of justice and compassion and the common good.” So choose wisely how and who you lead, but choose equally as wisely who you follow.