Where I live, in South Africa, everyone knows our national treasure continues to be the late Nelson Mandela. The status and respect he enjoys even after his death is legendary and fully merited. To have suffered imprisonment for 27 years and still come out preaching peace and reconciliation is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Mandela became president and received every imaginable honor, including a well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize. But those who knew the man knew him to possess genuine humility.

Many years ago, my family bumped into then-President Mandela while he happened to be going for a walk near our home. He took the time to stop and chat with the children, asking each of them about school and their favorite subject. Then he carried on walking the next two blocks while holding the hands of my two young children, just like a loving zayde. How many presidents or prime ministers can you see doing that when they’re not running for election?

He took an interest in our children because they were interesting to him. A giant of humility, he saw them for who they were: fellow human beings with whom he could interact and from whom he could learn. In Mandela we saw a leader who was as humble as he was great.

The beginning of the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), features an interesting lesson in humility of the most genuine kind.

The very first word, vayikra, features a smaller-than-usual alef. Tradition teaches1 that Moses had initially written the word without the alef at all, which changes its meaning. Vayikra means “and he called,” whereas without the alef it reads vayikar, “and he chanced upon, ” which is the way G‑d communicated to the heathen prophet Balaam, rather than approaching him deliberately and lovingly as He did with Moses. G‑d, however, insisted that Moses write the word vayikra with an alef, so he had no choice. But he used a small alef which is almost indiscernible, reflecting his true humility—despite his greatness, he remained the humblest of men.

Today, fame and recognition seem to be the keys to success. We have our fair share of self-appointed celebrities with millions of “followers.” Often, these are individuals with absolutely no claim to fame whatsoever, but they know how to market themselves. To become world-famous in the digital age, all you need is confidence, chutzpah, and … a publicist.

But thankfully, we are beginning to hear some intelligent divergent voices.

Author Malcolm Gladwell has much to say about the downfall of the overconfident. His stories and illustrations range from upsets on the battlefield to meltdowns in big business. How refreshing it is to read that according to Gladwell, “Being humble should be a qualification, not a disqualification, for picking a leader.”

Indeed, the contemporary successful CEO is more likely to be appreciated for his humility than respected for his hubris. He or she will be more communicative, will lead by consensus, and will be a team player rather than a controlling unilateralist.

In Jewish tradition, humility was always considered one of the most exalted virtues. In his famous letter to his son,2 the great Spanish sage, Nachmanides (1194 – 1270), called it “the finest of all admirable traits.”

Arrogance, on the other hand, was seen as one of the most negative characteristics in the whole catalogue of human personality. According to the Talmud, G‑d Himself abhors the arrogant to such an extent that “He and I cannot dwell together in this world.”3

The Torah states categorically that the Almighty Himself declared Moses to be “the humblest man on the face of the earth.”4 And the commentators explain that although Moshe was the most powerful leader in history, who took the Israelites out of bondage, who split the sea, and received the Tablets from G‑d, still, it didn’t go to his head. Why? Because he always considered his strengths and qualities as gifts from G‑d. Had someone else been granted those very same talents, he reckoned, they might have done even better. So Moses was simultaneously the greatest prophet and leader of all time, and also the humblest of all men.

And he was a role model to all future spiritual leaders.

A great leader in our generation, who likewise reflected utmost humility despite having a huge international following of students and admirers, was of course the Rebbe. It took G‑d a full week at the Burning Bush to convince Moses to take the mantle of leadership and confront Pharaoh. And it took the Rebbe a full year before he agreed to accept the position of Lubavitcher Rebbe (after his father-in-law’s passing).

He would speak, teach, and interact not only with the most advanced scholars, but with all people. On various occasions, he spoke only to groups of children. On most weekdays, if he encountered children on his way into shul he would stop and give them coins to put in a charity box. And on Sundays, when he would bless people while distributing dollars for tzedakah, anyone and everyone could see him personally. There was no admission policy. All were welcome, great and simple, famous and ordinary, religious and secular, Jew and non-Jew.

Greatness is no reason for arrogance. Indeed, the truly great are truly humble.