Leadership, Presence, and Authenticity

By Dr. Susie Tanchel

[This is the second in a weekly series “When and how does effective leadership make a true difference?” written by alumni, staff, and faculty of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

Toward the end of Sefer Bereishit, after many years of hiding his real identity and overcome by emotion, Joseph finally outs himself. At this critical moment, he is finally able to be both fully present and to embody his authentic self. It is a deeply personal and very powerful moment. Authenticity in our leadership roles is personal. It depends on knowing our authentic self and being honest and reflective. And if we are honest in our professional capacity, who we are cannot be separated from what we are seeking to accomplish.

There are naturally many occasions when my professional role and personal self are completely aligned: giving a speech, teaching a class, leading a session for our teachers, and sitting at a board meeting, to name a few. What these areas have in common is that I’m at ease, confident, and knowledgeable. I know whether I want to inspire or to inform others, and I have a clear sense of the goals of the conversation.

Despite this truth, being an authentic head is not always the same as being authentically myself. Given the seemingly unending demands for a head of school’s attention, I cannot always be present in the way I want to be. Sometimes I cannot delve into a matter the way I would like to or express the empathy I know is required or even show up at an event because I choose to be present elsewhere. Making the best possible choices necessitates that I know my authentic self and am honest about the needs of my organization. I know being present is key for a leader and I have to accept that I can’t always do it as I wish I could. Thus self-acceptance of my limitations and forgiveness for where I fall short is critically important, as is accepting that others will not always be pleased with me.

Moreover, if as leaders we are serving our mission and our various constituencies, then authenticity and presence are in service of these higher goals. Therefore, ironically, authenticity and presence are frequently not about me, they are about inspiration and modeling. I must be asking myself, “What effect do I want my presence to have? Do your people trust what they see and feel about me?” My actions must be consistent over time, so that I can build trust.

Recently one of our teachers passed away. She was one of the lights of our school. The moment was profoundly sad for the school and for me personally because I had a long history with her family. I wanted to be present for my community in their sorrow and authentic to my own grief. I had to strike the right balance: showing enough emotion both to be authentic and to give others permission to show their grief, but without overwhelming them or making it about me. This moment was not about me.

A couple of years ago at our annual fundraiser, being the shy person I am, I yearned to choose a wall I could lean on, quietly watching others chatting away. But as the head of school, that was not an option. This moment was not about me. Not being authentic is not the same as being false or inauthentic. It simply means that there are many occasions where responsibility trumps authenticity.

Moreover, sometimes being authentic, saying or doing what is true for me, would undermine my endpoint. Rather, I must ask, “Who is the person I want the others to experience me as?” I must remember that those I am speaking with will likely remember how I made them feel more than the specific words I share. Since I believe that empathy and intention are critical to presence I need to ask: “Can I go into more conversations seeking to understand? Can I start from a stance of learning and patience even with the demanding teacher who seeks my attention frequently?”

It’s hard work to recognize that responsibility to others and to my position may trump full authenticity. Like Joseph, I must find the balance and the appropriate moment to be revealing. Authenticity and presence is about how I show up as a leader, but in the final analysis it is not about me. Leadership presence is about how others will feel. This means I need to grapple with my own stumbling blocks and recognize that sharing my authentic self must be tempered with my responsibility to be the head of school my community needs me to be. It’s an ongoing process of self-discovery, growth, and reflection.

Dr. Susie Tanchel is the head of school at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. She is an alumna of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Cross Posted at eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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