What qualities make a great leader?

Wisdom and insight, ideals and conviction are important assets. Diplomacy also helps a leader navigate through the right channels. But I think the most essential quality is courage—the fearlessness to follow your convictions.

Throughout the Torah’s narration of their lives, there is only one recorded disagreement between Abraham and Sara. The dispute was resolved only when G‑d Himself intervened, commanding Abraham to follow Sarah’s wishes.

At a very advanced age, Abraham and Sarah had a child of their own, as G‑d promised. Both were delighted with this miraculous birth, and they called their son Yitzchak (Isaac), which means “laughter,” due to their great joy.

The child grew and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But then, Sarah saw Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar—Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant whom she had given to Abraham—mocking. And Sarah said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave and her son, for the son of this slave shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac.”1

Understandably, Abraham was not pleased with Sarah’s demand: “The matter was very grievous in Abraham’s eyes because of his son.”2

G‑d interceded: G‑d said to Abraham, “Let it not be grievous in your eyes because of the boy and your maidservant. All that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice, for in Isaac shall your seed be called. And also of the son of the maidservant I will make a nation, because he is your seed.”3

Abraham dutifully complied: Abraham rose up early in the morning; he took bread and a bottle of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder and the child, and he sent her away.4

Abraham’s reluctance to do Sarah’s bidding is understandable. Abraham personified chessed, kindness. His entire life was devoted to reaching out to others, giving endlessly and indiscriminately. He persistently focused on humanity’s great potential, deliberately turning a blind eye to its imperfections.

To demand that he banish his own son from his home was too much. Only when G‑d himself intervened did Abraham realize the severity of the situation.

G‑d instructed Abraham, “Listen to her voice.”

Rashi explains these words: “‘Listen to the voice of the prophetic spirit within her.’ From this admonition, we deduce that Abraham’s prophetic powers were secondary to Sarah’s.”

Abraham was constrained by his natural tendency toward compassion, so G‑d commanded him to listen to his wife’s voice because she had an objective clarity that he did not. She understood that Abraham’s indiscriminate giving needed to be tempered by well-defined borders.

Why was Sarah so bothered by Ishmael’s behavior? What prompted her to take such a harsh and unforgiving stance?

Kessef Mezukak5 explains that Sarah perceived that Ishmael’s mocking was too intense and unwholesome. From observing the way Ishmael was behaving, Sarah discerned that he would hurt Isaac by either physically injuring him or spiritually harming him through his sinful ways. She would not—could not—risk having him in her home and took a zero-tolerance approach towards his bullying.

The “Eishet Chayil” (Woman of Valor) hymn is recorded in the book of Proverbs (31:10–31) and is customarily recited every Friday night. According to the Midrash, this prayer was originally composed by Abraham as a eulogy for Sarah.6

One of the verses in this song is “Darshah tzemer u-fishtim,” that the woman of valor seeks a wool and linen mixture. The Torah teaches us that wool and linen is shaatnez, a forbidden combination, and any garment containing both materials may not be worn.

With these words, Abraham was paying tribute to Sarah’s keen perception of character. He was hinting to this very episode with Ishmael, and acknowledging Sarah’s foresight. Sarah realized that Ishmael and Isaac had incompatible missions, and that the mixture would pose a deadly combination. She was adamant about removing this toxic ingredient.

Now, let’s take a step back and examine the ramifications of Sarah’s actions.

Sarah and Abraham were on a relentless mission to change the world. Sarah spread their G‑dly message among the world’s women with the same zeal and passion that Abraham had for the world’s men. Day after day, they welcomed strangers into their home, whom they taught to believe in the one G‑d and to live a more just and moral life.

Banishing her stepson from her home was sure to have negative consequences. Her detractors would be only too happy to claim that she was selfish, even cruel, merely harboring an ugly grudge against Hagar. In fact, until today, there are those who portray Sarah negatively due to this episode.

Yet none of these considerations prevented Sarah from taking action. Her prime consideration was not whether her reputation would be tarnished or if this would create antagonism.

She knew what was necessary for her child, and she fearlessly and boldly took action. Nothing would prevent her from carrying out the responsibility that G‑d had entrusted to her. What others would say—and even her husband’s reluctance and discomfort—would not sway her.

Sarah’s name means “princess” or “ruler.” She taught her family by example that a leader must have a sense of moral nobility and the courage to lead.

This is why G‑d told Abraham, “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.”

At various junctures in our lives, we will be called upon to be a leader. Sarah’s boldness and fearlessness serves as a model.

Do we genuinely consider what would be the best for our children for their unique, personal development? Despite what society says, or what our neighbors, friends, co-workers, or relatives will say, are we prepared to do what will be most meaningful for ourselves and our families, without any fear of social rejection?

“Listen to her voice,” G‑d said to Abraham. Shemabekolah.

And each one of us, too, is being instructed, “Listen to her voice.”

Find your voice of Sarah. Find your inner voice. Find the voice of nobility, strength, and boldness. Find the voice that intuitively knows the best path for your spiritual development.

Find that inner voice. And then listen to it. Boldly and fearlessly.