Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: Leadership means taking the reins — and sharing them

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Philanthropist Charles Bronfman once told me, “Leaders lead. That’s what they do.”

Years later I was sitting with his professional partner for philanthropic impact, Jeffrey Solomon. “Leaders lead,” Solomon said. “That’s what they do.”

Like an old married couple who finish each other’s sentences, these two are so intertwined in their thinking and doing that at times it’s as if their minds are locked together, even when the conversations are years apart.

But what does it mean to be a leader in the Jewish community today? Who can hold those reins?

John Ruskay, the devoted leader of the UJA-Federation of New York, talks about his goal of “creating [an] inspired community that can sear the soul and engage people.” It’s a lofty goal, and he’s more than doing his share to make it happen. But it’s easier said than done, and the community needs a lot more leaders to say “heineini,” here I am.

Ruskay obviously isn’t alone and can’t do it alone, and lay leaders hold vital keys. And as major figures such as Abe Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein, who have devoted decades of service to the Jewish community, are approaching retirement age, we need to think about who will fill their shoes.

So what’s the secret sauce of being a successful Jewish leader? The willingness to fail and the willingness to work as a team. People can achieve massive breakthrough results only when they work together and share risks.

Of course, risk is scary. Sadly, there is still a lot of lip service in the Jewish community regarding performance metrics and change. Still, too many of us ultimately get cold feet. Lay leaders, afraid that their ideas will get shot down or their fundraising solicitations will be rejected, too often sit on the sidelines. Responsibilities once held proudly by lay leaders are being dumped on CEOs like worn-out overcoats. CEOs in turn fear backlashes from their boards and donors, and sometimes set leadership expectations too low. Employees all too often ask “how has it always been done” as opposed to “what is the right thing to be doing today.”

The forthcoming book “Reimagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations: Ten Practical Lessons to Help You Implement Change and Achieve Your Goals,” by the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Misha Galperin, is a thought-provoking and worthy read. The best chapter is a groundbreaking section about mistakes in which Galperin openly outlines his own personal mistakes.

But the author also points out that “We’re losing about half the Jews in any major city in North America to join what we have to offer. That’s a hefty percent when we’re a pretty small people to begin with. And although organizations like federations and others are well aware of this loss and many have known about it for years, few are coming up with any strategy to tackle this number. There’s no coordinated plan or sharing of best practices. We look at this number and shrug. That’s a mistake. It’s a mistake of ineptitude.”

Sometimes the mistake is that programs we offer aren’t good enough. All too often it is that we don’t make interfaith families, gay couples, people with disabilities and others feel welcomed and supported. At times, however, it is also because people are looking for charismatic leaders to carry the burdens of leadership for the rest of us. We wait for someone else to take the reins, denying ourselves and our community our talents. Meanwhile, some leaders find that all too comfortable, building organizations based on cultures of personality rather than of performance.

I know that one of my biggest failures in leading a Jewish organization (and there were many) was that I allowed myself to put too much on my own shoulders. The cost to my family was brutal. But just as large was the cost to those who didn’t get a chance to stretch their own leadership wings more broadly.

At times I failed to find the right people to do the right things. At other times I had the right people but failed to give them the right powers and responsibilities so they could feel the joy of making the difference. The magic times were when I let others on the staff and board shine their brightest.

As Galperin writes, “One of the leadership myths that gets most in the way of focus and delegation is the messianic-like notion that as a leader, you can solve all problems and that you have to solve them all. You are the only one. You can do it best. No one else can even come close. You have saving powers. When leaders say that they are so swamped they’re not getting anything done, they may be suffering from the messiah complex. They haven’t really wrestled with what is essential and what is nonessential. They get caught up in what is urgent and forget what is important, in best-selling author Stephen Covey’s terms, under the guise that they have to be everything and do everything.”

He adds, “We want to say yes all the time. We feel that we are betraying others and ourselves when we say no.”

Let’s face it, leadership is hard work. And we can’t get caught up in our own myths. Leadership needs to be decentralized and held in more hands. As Brenda Gevertz, executive director of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, points out, the tools and support needed from donors/investors/lay leaders/the community overall include “assistance with marketing; lay leader participation and buy-in for professional development; understanding that there is a correlation between pay scale and talent.”

Of course, the list doesn’t end there.

Ironically, some of the best times for leaders to grow are the time they are away from their jobs. Our tradition teaches “More than Jews have kept the Shabbat; it is the Shabbat that has kept the Jews.” Many Jewish professionals thank Shabbat for a time when they don’t have to go to fundraising or committee meetings, and can experience for themselves the magic of a Jewish experience with their families. It revitalizes us.

Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein, a mentor to numerous Jewish leaders including myself, points out that “Most good leaders struggle with work-life balance, male and female. There are few philanthropic emergencies, yet many people in the field act like they are curing cancer. Passion for the cause is important, but the reality is when all is said and done, no one is going to wish that they had attended one more meeting; they will wish that they had spent more time with those that they love.”

Of course, for most Jewish professionals and lay leaders, those they love expand far beyond the boundaries of their home and onto their staffs, board, donors and the entire Jewish family.

(Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and past president of The Israel Project, is the founder and president of Laszlo Strategies.)