May 21st, 2016

Over the past couple of decades leadership training has ballooned into a multi-billion dollar industry.

A Google search for “leadership training courses” elicits 373 million results. Here in Los Angeles UCLA offers a whole range of leadership courses, and the online blurb informs us that “in today’s economy there’s a high demand for leadership and management skills, and our leadership and management courses give you a competitive edge . . . instructors are world-class experts in their fields.”

Hundreds if not thousands of colleges and universities across the globe offer similar courses for the same reasons.

And yet, despite the incredible growth of this academic field, the debate as to whether leaders are born with leadership qualities embedded into their personalities, or whether you can be trained to be a great leader even if you are not born with those skills, continues to rage.

A study in 2013, led by management expert and retired colonel Professor Sean Hannah of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, mapped the brains of 103 military officers and concluded that good leaders are the ones who are born with leadership qualities.

In other words, if you were ever looking to find the next great leader, like a Winston Churchill or an Abraham Lincoln, what you would need to do is conduct a series of brain tests on the candidates, and the resultant data will give you the information you would need to pick a winner.

Another unrelated study, also from 2013, and conducted jointly by teams in London, New York and California, concluded that leadership skills are genetic, passed down from generation to generation in a genotype called ‘rs4950’.

Which begs the question – what is the point of taking a leadership course if you were neither born with the right brain nor the right genetic code?

A more recent study, the results of which emerged last month, addresses this question from a slightly different angle by focusing on the distinction between good managers and good leaders.

This study, which was conducted by a ‘leadership consulting’ company called Development Dimensions International, took nine-years to compile, and looked at 15,000 ‘leaders’ across 300 companies in 18 different countries.

One can only imagine what the study cost them to put together, but – astronomical costs aside – the results confirmed what any half intelligent person suspected all along: there is no relationship between an MBA degree and quality leadership.

Evan Sinar, DDI’s Chief Scientist, put it very simply in his summary of the findings: “MBA degrees did indeed make better managers; unfortunately the same could not be said for their impact on stronger leadership.”

This week’s Torah portion describes the appointment of Moses’ brother Aaron to a distinguished leadership position as the first High Priest to preside over the religious rituals of the Temple.

His appointment set the scene for all future High Priestly appointments, with the Torah informing us that a High Priest could only be chosen if he was tangibly greater than his colleagues (Lev. 21:10): וְהַכֹּהֵן הַגָדוֹל מֵאֶחָיו אֲשֶר יוּצַק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ שֶמֶן הַמִשְחָה – “and the priest who is greater than his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil is poured . . .”

The Talmud comments that the inclusion of “greater than his brethren” in the suitability description specifies that the candidate for the position of High Priest would need to be superior in strength, more handsome, more intelligent, and even of greater material means than his brethren.

The Midrash cites Aaron’s superhuman strength as proof that he was more than qualified for the job. In describing his first day on the job at the beginning of the Book of Numbers, the Torah tells us that Aaron was required to raise each of the twenty-two thousand Levites above his head in the course of just one day, as part of the consecration process.

The medieval commentator Chizkuni, clearly astonished by this incredible feat of strength, suggests that Aaron’s ability to do this was only made possible by means of Divine assistance. That being the case, why would the Midrash cite this as proof that Aaron was stronger than his brethren? Perhaps had they been offered the same Divine assistance they would have been able to do it too?

The Jerusalem Talmud offers us a fascinating insight that not only answers this question, but at the same time can help us understand why leadership training is important, even for born leaders.

Whenever someone is elevated to a new leadership position, says the Talmud, the appointment itself instills talents and abilities that he may not have previously possessed. So much so, that he will now be considered a new person by God, and granted forgiveness for previous transgressions.

This kind of change can only come about through Divine intervention, and God will enhance his innate qualities so that suddenly he is greater than the sum of his parts.

In order to be appointed to the position of High Priest one was required to possess great strength – the type of strength that was visibly superior to all the other priests of his generation. Then, once appointed, that strength would increase as a result of Divine intervention.

In Aaron’s case this resulted in a feat of superhuman strength that defies explanation, although there is no question that in order to be appointed he was already stronger than any other priest.

Studies that prove that leaders are born and not made do not negate the need for leadership training, although it would seem that if you are not a born leader, enrolling yourself on a leadership course would probably be a waste of time and money.

Leaders are born, but all born leaders are diamonds in the rough, needing improvement and enhancement so that when they eventually get to a leadership position their natural abilities will have been amplified for the benefit of the people they will lead. Hopefully, at that stage, Divine intervention will take that leader to the next level.

Photo: High Priest pouring oil over the menorah, Jewish new year card (Collections of the National Library of Israel, Public Domain,

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