THE BLOG

Jewish Leadership

06/21/2012 11:07 am ET | Updated Aug 21, 2012

The Torah's first lesson to prospective leaders seems to be that popularity and leadership rarely go hand in hand. Just ask Moses, who faced a steady stream of disobedience "In the Wilderness." I have reflected on this after recent dialogues about leadership with the governor of Michigan and the mayor of Chicago, and following my latest visit to the White House to speak with a president under siege from many quarters, including Jewish quarters. I thought of Moses at that moment -- and wondered if the President did as well.

What is the nature of Jewish leadership? What are its dilemmas? My concern today is a pair of issues that come up all the time in the voluminous (and far from unanimous) literature on leadership, and bear special importance for Jewish leaders: (1) the need to have and display integrity (i.e., to know who you are, know what you stand for, and never to depart from those commitments), and (2) the difference and connection between management and leadership.

I will begin with the latter distinction, which happens to be the subject of a smart piece in the June 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review by Michael Watkins. The move from management to leadership, Watkins writes, requires "seven seismic shifts of perspective and responsibility," most of which involve the move from small to big picture thinking, part to whole, short- to long-term planning, and the like. John Kotter takes a somewhat different approach to the distinction in his piece, "What Leaders Really Do," originally published in 1990. Managers cope with complexity, order and status quo consistency; leaders deal with change, uncertainty, the future. Managers plan and budget, leaders set direction and offer inspiration and vision. I find the manager/leader contrast extremely useful indeed. I have experienced it from the inside in my attempt over the past five years to change elements of the culture and direction of The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). That task has challenged me to think long-term, keep the big picture in view, and do my best to motivate and inspire JTS's diverse constituencies.

But something troubles me about the distinction, I confess. One can push it too far, put too much value on change, and fail to appreciate existing beliefs and practices. Rabbi Ami Hersh, a JTS alumnus and a winner in this year's Jewish Futures Competition for innovative leaders, recently reminded me of this when he said, "Sometimes people feel that in order to be innovative and creative you need to be part of a startup ... there are ways to do that within an established organization." The great sociologist Max Weber put too much emphasis on change, and too little value on continuity, in his famous distinction (which bears a close family resemblance to the contrast between management and leadership) between two "ideal types" of authority: "traditional" (which Weber identified with rote habit, conformity, and "the eternal yesterday") versus "charismatic" (that insists on going its own way in the face of the existing order and getting others to follow). "Here I stand," declares the charismatic leader, "I can do no other."

There is something "un-Jewish" about this dichotomy, I believe -- no coincidence, given that it derives from Protestant polemics against Judaism and the Catholic Church. I call it un-Jewish because Israel's prophets, kings, sages, tzadikim (Hasidic rebbes), and lay leaders -- no matter how charismatic or innovative -- never advocated rebellion against inherited belief, law or ritual. Confronted with radical change in the conditions faced by observant Jews, our leaders sometimes pressed in one form or another for change in the ways that Jews served God and Torah. They also insisted upon faithful continuity in that service. Our prophets would never have come out in favor of "sovereign selves" who declare -- as a matter of course -- that they "can do no other," obey no established order, submit to no text or history. We have, time and again, overhauled existing institutions and created new ones. But Jews are here to tell the tale, when other ancient civilizations are long gone, because our leaders respected continuity as well as change; short-term, small-picture, problem-solving management as well as long-term, big picture, posing-new-questions change.

Solomon Schechter, addressing the JTS graduates of 1912, declared that "humility and self-sacrifice" were the essential qualities of the rabbinate. He did not like the idea of Jewish leaders deciding whether they were bound to tradition, precisely because he himself, as the leader of Conservative Judaism, urged careful change in Jewish tradition. Leadership is about service, not about the leader. Change is never for its own sake, never a "positive" in contrast to a "negative" status quo, but rather an attempt -- grounded firmly in past changes -- that, like them, is aimed at preserving and strengthening tradition.

Jewish institutions and organizations today require a massive dose of change, to be sure. But they also depend upon established institutions that have known how and what to change (and not to change) over the course of many decades and, in some cases, many centuries. The balance between the two is everything. We need leader-managers and manager-leaders, serving communities -- whether synagogues or schools, camps or Federations, youth groups or senior centers -- that seek the proper balance between continuity of the status quo and constructive disruption of past practice. Jewish leaders must be schooled in the difference between what must be changed, in order to keep tradition vital and community compelling, and what must not change, lest all that we Jews stand for ebb away with the tide. This combination of skills is basic to Jewish leadership in our day -- and has been true of Jewish leadership in many times and places. It requires not only humility and self-sacrifice, but great learning: knowledge of where Jews and Judaism have been and should be going.

The urgency and difficulty of striking that balance make integrity a crucial component of Jewish leadership. It's not just a matter of authority (i.e., our desire to do the right thing as Jews), and the need to trust that our leaders care about standing upright before God, Torah, and the people Israel. There is a practical requirement for integrity and honesty as well. Things are moving fast. The ground seems to be shifting under our feet. No institution or organization can carry on the way it has for many decades. In such a situation, we need leaders who do not choose direction by holding a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing--the very definition of following, not of leading. (How do we know that Saul was a bad king? asks the Midrash. Because no one objected to his rule. He was very popular.) Nor can we put our trust in leaders who zigzag in response to circumstances, listing left and then listing right, drawing sometimes on this model from Jewish texts or history and sometimes on that model. A leader must come to the decisions that confront her armed with in-depth knowledge of Jewish texts, Jewish values, and the Jewish past. She must be a Jewish self, confident of who she is and where she stands.

Put another way: leaders must be predictable to themselves and to their followers. The rank and file members of Jewish communities and organizations must be able to take independent and creative initiative, knowing that their leaders will support them because they are walking further along the path the leaders have charted. The Midrash contrasts Noah, who "walked with God," to Abraham, who "walked before God." We want children, students, and followers who, like Abraham, take our paths further than we could walk or imagine. Indeed, we want leaders who listen to and learn from followers -- a shared process of mutual advancement rather than a top-down approach of wise-leader-dictating-to-submissive-followers. This, too, requires shared commitment: leaders with demonstrated loyalty to the normative agenda of their community. Jewish has to be more than an adjective describing the faith or ethnicity of the leader of a community. It must describe the cause we serve and the way we serve it.

The mayor of Chicago and the governor of Michigan belong to different political parties and exhibited very different body language and rhetorical styles when they spoke with me about leadership. They are active members of different religious groups. But both stressed pragmatism over ideology; compromise and conversation, rather than partisan fights to the finish; continuity as well as change. And both spoke about the need for integrity and truth-telling from political leaders and every other kind of leader. Jewish institutions need leaders and followers of similar commitment. Given where things stand with us in 2012, we really can do no other.