The Rebbe’s Leadership Style

In an extract from his new biography, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz reveals how the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson put his ideas into practice


August 11, 2014
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My Rebbe, Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, is published by Maggid Books at £18.99

A friend of mine once put it well. He called the Rebbe “the most successful one-man business in the world.”

Because of the complex interplay of his many roles – teacher, spiritual guide, activist, diplomat, personal counselor – it may be especially revealing to consider his work as a project manager.

In the Rebbe’s earlier years, there was money for small things, but not enough for anything big – not for a macro-organisation, not even for a single larger event. And yet through his unconventional leader-ship style, the movement slowly grew incrementally from weakness to strength. Many of the Rebbe’s young Chasidim began to pitch in. Over time, some – those who had shown specific interest, ability or initiative – became chiefs of departments. Someone might come up with an idea, and a mitzvah campaign would be launched. These operations were not always organised and managed from the top down.

In 1967, the Rebbe announced that the time had come to focus on the mitzvah of tefillin, the religious article that Jewish men wear during morning prayers; he did not, however, outline how a tefillin campaign was to be organised. Several young Chasidim simply went out into the street with pairs of tefillin and began to ask men if they’d like to put them on. This strategy, having been adopted almost impulsively, continues to this day.

There was no organised body that created detailed agendas for projects like the tefillin campaign. The Rebbe preferred a decentralised approach, putting the responsibility for success into the hands of the Chasidim. Each shaliach, each local emissary, created and executed his own local plan, with little or no help – including financial – from the Eastern Parkway headquarters. Under the Rebbe, Chabad did not function like a smooth military machine; it worked instead like a group of partisans, mounting uncoordinated forays. To everyone’s astonishment, these efforts worked.

Integral to these successes were the willpower and persistence of the Chasidim, a trait that has grown even more striking after the Rebbe’s passing. They were inspired through service to their spiritual leader and by the belief that the Rebbe’s flag was an especially glorious one. All Chasidim are ambassadors of Chabad in one way or another, often representing the movement with chutzpah and tenacity.

While its far-flung activities seemed disorganized, Chabad operatives sent extensive reports back to a single nerve center. Eventually, more specific instructions did begin to issue from Eastern Parkway. The Rebbe was usually obeyed, whether his wishes were more general or more specific. In that limited sense, there was uniformity of leadership and management from the beginning, without cramping the energy and enthusiasm that drove the Chasidim’s bottom-up initiatives.

Many years ago, an internal political rift roiled a Chabad synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. The synagogue asked me as a neutral party to summarize the dispute, and ask the Rebbe what to do. After posing several specific questions, I suggested to the Rebbe that the synagogue needed a clear organisational structure. One man – as was the status quo – could not handle all its affairs.

The Rebbe’s answer was typical. He answered my questions, but there was not one word about my proposal to install a hierarchy in the little organszation. Reading between the lines, the Rebbe was saying: thank you for the concern, but I do not accept the idea of my dictating a clearer management structure.

The diffuse character of the movement prevailed and succeeded. The Chasidim could not rely on funds or running orders coming from headquarters; often neither was forthcoming. Each subsidiary unit found a way to function, because it had already become accustomed to working independently. But each was inspired by the presence of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe’s “system” for Chabad not only worked, it proliferated. It did not run perfectly; no system can create or attract only geniuses and angels. The Rebbe’s requests were mainly directions for activity. He seldom interfered when there were clashes of personality or rivalries for power. He allowed each party to move forward and in time two sepa-rate projects would be developed. Without his involvement, Chasidim would work out their disputes and create a semblance of equilibrium.

While the Rebbe allowed the Chasidim to come up with ideas and efforts of their own, he demanded and received detailed reports on their progress. He read the reports, commented upon them and referred back to them. The Rebbe was deeply involved in the details of every activity, going so far as to punctuate articles in the women’s magazine and choosing the cover illustration for a children’s publication. By giving the Chasidim the power to create while guiding even the smallest operational details, the Rebbe put himself at the center of the movement. The Chasidim were free to fly, but they knew that the Rebbe was always at their back.

The Chabad world has very little hierarchy. That is part of its charm – but it has also presented problems. There was one chief – the Rebbe – and everyone else was on another level. Young boys and those more senior would jostle each other at public gatherings. Presidential candidates and simple Chasidim waited together for meetings with the Rebbe, on the bench outside his office. I once found the then-Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres sitting between two very simple Chasidim.

While the Chasidim always accepted the Rebbe’s wishes, they could not always carry them out. This was never an act of deliberate disobedience. When the Rebbe would announce a new initiative, he would often say that it has to be done “with a shturem,” in a storm: as an urgent matter. How many times a year can someone create, organise, study or talk with people “in a storm”? There would be many such instructions each year.

Some of the Chasidim did much more than they were asked, and took things too far. More than once he would insist: “What I am writing is clear and simple.” “Do not make any commentaries.” “Do not try to divine any secrets or anything else not on the surface – I am writing exactly what I want to say.”

However, the Rebbe’s objectives – and those very same demands that he made upon his Chasidim – caused them to catch on fire. His high goals and expectations energized the Chasidim ever more, and increased their devotion.

Maggid is a division of Koren Books, Jerusalem

    Last updated: 3:36pm, August 11 2014