Organizational Leadership in Chabad

The Rebbe as Organizational Leader

By Dovi Seldowitz

The seventh rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), is credited for overseeing one of the largest networks of Jewish institutions and centers following the World War Two. His role as leader of the Chabad movement has been examined in a number of works by scholars and journalists. But a mere description of the Rebbe’s activities will not capture the core nature of the his leadership. One of the many ways to better understand the Rebbe’s leadership is in light of some of the popular theories of leadership. In the case of the Rebbe, organizational leadership, as opposed to institutional leadership, is a theoretical model that may be used to expand our existing understanding of the Rebbe’s role.

In studies on leadership theories, scholars have differentiated between organizational and institutional leadership. A basic difference between the two is that institutional leaders will stress the existing values and power held by the group, promoting an existing (or past) vision (“this is what we stand for”), while organizational leaders promote a new vision and new values for the group, focusing on future change (“this is what we can become”).[1]

Chabad is often noted for its unique position among Chasidic groups. Other Chasidic groups are described as “insular” in the way they separate themselves from contemporary secular society. Chabad, by contrast, has devoted itself to Jewish outreach and is very much involved in the general Jewish world as well society in general. This difference is a direct result of the efforts of the various Chasidic rebbes; most Chasidic rebbes regrouping after World War Two sought to rebuild their communities, focusing inward. The Rebbe, however, focused his efforts outward. The difference between the Rebbe’s leadership and that of the other Chasidic rebbes may parallel the different between organizational and institutional leaders.

The non-Chabad Chasidic communities regrouped and emphasized institutional growth, founding communal institutions, the synagogues and yeshivot, in small neighborhoods in New York and Israel, resembling the shtetls of old. Chabad, to a certain degree, also emphasized institutional building, but the founding of Chabad yeshivot in America was mostly promoted by the previous Rebbe and the Rebbe’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary,[2] while the Rebbe’s leadership, especially in the early years, was clearly defined by his administration of the Chabad outreach organizations.

The various types of leadership styles, including the organizational and the institutional, have a strong and discernible impact in the groups where those leaders are active. It is interesting that of the major Chasidic groups other than Chabad each rebbe focused on institutional growth, displaying their abilities as institutional leaders. The Rebbe appears as the sole exception, displaying the rare feat of a Chasidic rebbe who excels at organizational leadership.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Marvin Washington, Kimberly B. Boal, and John N. Davis, “Institutional leadership: Past, present, and future.” The Sage Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism (2008): 721-735.

[2] See, Chaim Miller, Turning Judaism Outward: A Biography of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Kol Menachem, 2014, pp. 149-150.

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