This is probably the first generation, or the first era, in which celebrities exist. There’s always been powerful people. There’s always been leaders. There’s always been role models. But celebrities are a new invention. Time has produced celebrityhood.
Celebrities are different from true leaders, genuine leaders in a number of ways. The first, most important thing is that celebrities have a love-hate relationship with their fans. They love having their followers and their fans, but they hate them. They despise their fans for being fools because they know what they are, and they don’t understand people who idolize them. It doesn’t make sense to them.
One very popular celebrity who maybe deserves more credit than most because he’s a real talent confessed that when he goes to a stadium to perform in front of 30 000 people, he doesn’t understand the people sitting way out in the bleachers there: “What do they come for? What are they looking at? What do they see? What are they doing?” So, he realizes the falseness of it all – how plastic it is and how meaningless it is.
So, a genuine leader is concerned and committed to his followers while a celebrity has a love-hate relationship with his followers.
Also, a true, genuine leader moves people to a better place. He is not content or is not even interested in fame – he’s interested in results. Celebrities, of course, are not interested in results. They’re not there to lead because, essentially, they are not leaders. And yet, we sometimes hold them up as role models. In fact, we even encourage them to be role models which they can’t do. To be a role model you have to have a very high standard of personal values, personal virtue, more than enough for yourself so that it rubs off on others as well. Celebrities don’t claim to have that kind of virtue. So, let’s take a look at what real celebrityhood should be, both from the viewpoint of the celebrity and the viewpoint of the fans.
What should we be looking for in a leader? Of course, there are many levels. You have leaders, you have great leaders, you have the greatest leaders and so on. So, if we take a look at a good model, one of the earliest is Moshe. Moshe is still to this day our teacher – Moshe Rabbeinu. He is still our teacher because what he said and what he taught was not only relevant and vital to his generation but is still relevant and still vital all these generations later. So, the first thing we learn is that a true leader has an important message – he has something to say.
Before we get to his personal character, for the quality of his character, we need to look at his message – what is he teaching, what is he saying, what guidance is he offering? You have leaders who were good for a generation or two and then their teachings became irrelevant. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but that means that he was a short-term leader. A greater leader would have a message that would last longer, it would be more embracing of the changes that happen from generation to generation and the message would remain relevant and vital.
There‘s something about the quality of a leader which we overlook even in our genuine leaders. Nobody is born being a leader of many. A person develops gradually. First, you are the leader, the master of your own fate, of yourself. You get married, you start a family – now you are the leader of a group, a small intimate group. Then people notice that you have something to offer and they come and seek your advice and now you’re responsible for a community. And from there you become responsible for a city, for a state, for a country and then for the whole world.
The sign of a true and genuine leader is that as he moves to the greater responsibility, he does not abandon his previous responsibilities. He is able to add to, rather than eliminate what came before. So, a man who runs a country but has forgotten his responsibility to his family or even to himself is not the greatest leader. He obviously can’t handle that role because it’s costing him his family, which means he’s not really equipped to be a leader. Leadership should not cause any loss, it shouldn’t cause anyone to suffer leadership. It means you have something to give, you have something to offer for all of those in your world, in your life. So if you have to start eliminating things you’re just not cut out for that job.
A celebrity, certainly, loses all control of his personal life, of his family life in favor of whatever pleasures of the 15 minutes of fame. So. that’s not a genuine leader.
What should we be looking for? In other words, what benefits, what results do we look for from a leader? It’s one thing to follow someone who gives good advice, who seems to be wiser than your average beard but following shouldn’t be the end of the line. A good teacher, a good leader empowers the people who follow. He doesn’t allow them to become dependent, he doesn’t allow them to give up responsibility or decision-making and their own burdens. He helps them with their burdens. He doesn’t replace them. So, a true leader does not weaken his followers. In fact, a true leader implies not that he has followers but that he is capable of producing little leaders, because if you’re a leader you should be producing leaders. If you’re a great follower then you’re a wonderful model for followers.
I was talking to a woman who said that she had given up on having children because she went to an infertility expert and he told her that she would probably never have children. I said: “Why do you go to an infertility expert? Go to a fertility expert! The infertility expert knows people who can’t have children. Go to somebody who knows women who can!” So, don’t go to a person who can produce followers, go to a person who can produce leaders.
Another quality about true leadership – a true leader does not get exhausted. If you’re cut out to do something and if you have a knack for it, the more you do it the more energy it gives you. When you’re doing something that goes against the grain, it goes against your nature, then you’re exhausted even from a short time. So, when you’re doing something that is slightly out of your nature, you’re exhausted, it wears you down because there’s friction. If you’re doing something you’re born to do, if you are born to lead, then you don’t get exhausted. That’s why we don’t hesitate to consult a true leader. We don’t hesitate to exhaust them because we know that it gives them energy rather than drains them of energy.
Somebody once asked the Rebbe how he can stand for all those hours giving out dollars, how he does not get tired. The Rebbe said „when you’re counting your treasures you never get tired.“ So, if you think it’s a job it will tire you. If you see it as a burden or a responsibility, then it will exhaust you. But if you see it as a treasure because that’s what you’re born to do then it gives you energy, it doesn’t drain you of energy.
One final thing. A true leader immediately enables you to turn around and have something to offer to others. If you’re studying a subject under a certain teacher and after five lessons, ten lessons, you go home and you see someone who has exactly the issue of the problem that you’re studying, and you can’t think of anything to say, you don’t have any advice, you don’t have any solution after 10 lessons, something is wrong. Of course, you’re not the expert leader yet. You’re not going to take full responsibility, but to have nothing to offer is not right. A true leader has a message for the people that is immediately useful, because if it is relevant and vital why can’t you share it?
So, sometimes, we surprise ourselves: you go to a class or you read a book and you just barely understood it, you’re not sure you even understood it and yet, when someone asks you a question, the idea comes easily to your lips because it just makes sense. You didn’t realize how easily you assimilated those ideas and now you have them to offer to others. The Rebbe put it in simple language: “If you’ve learned an aleph teach aleph, when you learn the beis you’ll teach the beis”. An aleph is an aleph, there isn’t much you can do with that. A beis is a beis. But the idea, the principle of it, is when you’ve learned something valid, something true, something real, then, of course, you can turn around and share it. If you can’t, it means that what you were taught was so vague or distant, or irrelevant that you can’t even put your own words. Maybe you compare it with what you heard but it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like you’re really giving advice. You’re just spouting something.
Now, the danger of celebrityhood both to the celebrity and their fans is that it destroys life. It destroys people, it destroys a country’s values because that which is false is not only disappointing, it’s destructive in a number of ways. If we follow celebrities, we are lulled into a feeling that we have some kind of a model, some kind of a direction and we fail to look for real teachers, for real models. So, after a couple of years, a couple of generations you have a country without leaders because celebrities have replaced them. Not by themselves but by our own failure because we are enamored with celebrities, we don’t bother seeking true leaders or creating true leaders.
A true leader, a true role model can’t impose himself on people and wouldn’t. So, the only way a real leader develops is that people seek his advice or seek his teachings and that makes him the teacher. He can’t impose it, he’s not a dictator.
So, if we don’t go looking for the proper role model there will be none, they won’t exist. So, we have pretty much a society in which there are no role models. Even when we elect a president, we don’t know what we’re looking for. We don’t recognize the quality or the character that we vote for because we’re looking so superficially. We’re judging so superficially out of habit. If you idolize a celebrity, how are you going to become a maven to understand who a true leader is and what it takes to be a true leader. So, even our voting, even our choice of political leaders is very poor.
The difference between a political leader and a celebrity is slowly disappearing. Celebrities are becoming political leaders and political leaders are becoming celebrities. They shouldn’t be. A political leader wields too much power to allow a celebrity to get to that position. A political leader has power. A celebrity only has popularity.
So, on the one hand by allowing celebrityhood to replace real leaders we become impoverished in the leadership field. We don’t produce leaders. Those who should be leaders are unheard, unknown. The effect that it has on us, if we look up to people who may not even have the morals and the qualities that we do have. When we’re looking up to people we should be looking down at. What does that do to our own value system? What does that do to our ideals, to our morals? It’s a terrible thing.
So, we actually degrade ourselves by giving attention, energy, thought to celebrityhood. We know young people who become celebrities. Not only they ruin their lives but often cut their lives short. Suicides, overdose – because it’s impossible to live that way. It is so false, the role of the identity is so false, that it destroys the people. And yet we find ourselves looking up to them as they are destroying themselves. Well this leads to a lot of depression.
If the most popular, the most famous, and the most rich can’t seem to find joy in life, what chance do we have, who are not part of Hollywood? What chance do we have? They have all the glamour, they have all the wealth, they have all the fun, they have all the opportunities, and they kill themselves. Well, life stinks. What will it take to have a good life? So, by defining their lives as the good life and then watching them deteriorate in front of our eyes – that’s really depressing! So, if we are an unhappy society it’s probably because of celebrityhood.
We build up the straw man, we say this is our idea of the good life, and when that turns out to be a disaster where do you go from there?