Local | News

Tucsonans learn leadership skills for changing world

David M. Elcott
Keri Silvyn
Diane Katz
Megan Davis

“The world is changing so fast, that none of us feels completely prepared for leadership. Engaging with very bright thinkers helps position us,” Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, said during the 5th Saul Tobin Jewish Community Leadership Institute, held in April and May. Along with 27 other board members of local synagogues and Jewish organizations, I attended the four evening sessions, listening to speakers and participating in lively discussions.

While the leadership practices most of us have learned over the years were based on a command mode originating in the military, David M. Elcott, Ph.D., and the other speakers — Tucsonans Diane Katz, Ph.D., Megan Davis and Keri Silvyn — focused on the “adaptive leadership” model  currently taught in business schools.

Most of the Jewish community’s  core issues are “swamp issues,” chronic issues such as continuity and intermarriage that do not go away, said Elcott, the Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service of New York University. The solo leader charging in on a white horse simply gets drowned in the swamp, Elcott said. Addressing swamp issues requires adaptive leadership that is collaborative. Rather than relying on power and authority, it involves working with a network of people in conversation, celebrating the blessing of multiple answers to address issues, and living with indeterminacy.

To give more people a voice, participants discussed conducting some meetings by email or video conference to fit into everyone’s busy schedules. Find what inspires people, said Elcott, and support their involvement in a project or episodically rather than requiring them to fit into the old model of continuous committee membership and attendance at board meetings.

The most important attribute of a successful leader is compassion, said Katz, president of The Working Circle, a conflict resolution/team building consultancy firm. In developing a model of “Jewish civility,” she suggested  drawing on the teachings of philosopher Martin Buber. Instead of being in “I-it” relationships in which we treat others as objects, we can choose to relate as “I and Thou,” meeting each other as authentic, whole human beings.

Adaptive leaders extend this approach to the larger community, developing the structures to engage people in identifying shared values and developing goals together. Davis, president of Davis Consulting Group, and Silvyn, a zoning and land use lawyer who is a partner at Lewis and Roca, LLP, discussed how they had been part of this type of process in working with Imagine Greater Tucson, www.imaginegreatertucson.org.

Learning new skills and having access to additional resources, said Andrew Kunsberg, a board member of Congregation Bet Shalom, has given him the confidence to address issues he knew were problems.

But change can be challenging. “Even though our familiar and comfortable leadership styles and behaviors may not have been effective or workable, they were comfortable,” noted Sharon Geiger, vice chair of Shalom Tucson.

It can be hard for people to imagine new styles of working and communicating if they are afraid. In an interview, Elcott noted the importance of the stories we tell ourselves. As a small community that has persisted for 3000 years, he said, the uniqueness of the Jewish people’s story is not the trauma we have suffered, but rather how we have flourished. When we let go of the fear that another Holocaust will happen, we are better able to assess and focus on current risks.

The leadership training sessions provided tangible ideas for improving how a board functions (or evaluating whether to join one), said Howard Schwartz, a board member of the Coalition for Jewish Education, and also gave him new ideas for developing cross-generational and cross-group collaborations.

In addition to facilitating collaboration, having a core group of local people experience the same training may help participants implement change in the larger community. In this way, the institute carries forward the ideals of the late Saul Tobin, who, said Mellan, was a “quintessential Jewish leader.”

The institute arose from a need identified in the Tucson Jewish Community 2001 Strategic Planning Process. It is jointly sponsored by Southern Arizona’s Jewish community institutions, administered and funded by the JFSA, and funded in large part by the Tobin Continuity Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation. The institute is held every other year, with the next one scheduled for 2012.

Deborah Mayaan serves on the steering committee of the Southern Arizona Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and organizes a collaborative Sukkot water event. She is an energy work practitioner, writer and artist. www.deborahmayaan.com