By Bill Robinson, PhD

[This is the 11th 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.]

Leadership is a shared endeavor, within the moment and across time. Leaders have always needed followers, and particularly today effective leaders need co-creators, co-implementers, and co-leaders. When we each look toward the future and the legacy of our leadership – whether we are professionals or philanthropists – we often wonder what will become of what we have created and stewarded. Current leaders need future ones who will continue the journey – perhaps taking a different path through the wilderness than we had chosen, but still leading us to a promised land held in common.

At The Davidson School, we have been training educators for positions of leadership for over 20 years, in day and congregational schools; JCCs; camps; early childhood centers; communal institutions; and start-ups. We have prepared leaders that work across denominations and in communities throughout North America. In this weekly series in eJewishPhilanthropy, you have been reading our alumni’s views on what makes for an effective leader. You may have also watched videos of our alumni discussing what makes The Leadership Difference.

We understand the challenges of leadership. Further, we hear the anguished cry echoing throughout the field: that we don’t have the leaders we need to guide our institutions into the future. Alas, this is not a strange cry to Jewish ears; we have been hearing it for millennia.

And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. (1 Samuel 8:7)

Interestingly, the people did not reject Samuel so much as lose faith in God; they no longer believed in the promise of a shared dream.

Today, we face the same dilemma. The challenge of leadership – especially in a time that demands collaboration and continuity – is to renew belief in a commonly held, overarching vision of Jewish learning and living in today’s world. Each leader and institution will naturally seek to imagine and enact its own particular vision that speaks to its community’s sense of meaningfulness and purpose. Yet, the symbols, metaphors, practices, and rituals of an overarching Jewish narrative is the material through which individual leaders craft visions of their own and inspire belief.

At The Davidson School, we are committed to building a Leadership Commons where thinkers, doers, and visionaries from all corners of Jewish education can come together to learn, create, inspire, and guide us toward a shared, vibrant Jewish future.

Weaving Back Together A Shared Dream

The roles of leadership today are particularly challenging. Leadership needs to inspire staff and funders alike, craft a compelling vision of the Jewish future, construct spaces for experimentation and reflection, continually learn and work collaboratively, think strategically, and take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves in the moment. This is a tall order.

Yet foremost, successful leadership is about using these shared cultural resources to inspire followership. As the great management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “Leaders need followers.” The core claim of all leaders is that they can guide us on a journey from where we are to where we ought/need/want/desire to be. In other words, “If y’all just follow my lead, I can bring us to the promised land,” whether it be a “land flowing with milk and honey,” happy and well-educated children, a well-funded Jewish community taking care of its own, or an entrepreneurial start-up creating new and better educational products that others use.

To state the obvious but oft forgotten, a leader’s success requires others to join the journey and together to make it happen. This has always been the case despite claims to the contrary, and arguably the challenges we face today demand even greater empowerment and participation of followers.

Getting the job as executive director or head of school is just the beginning. One’s formal status may be able to secure staff compliance, but commitment – willing participation in a shared dream – is always voluntary, and even more so when engaging lay leadership. Effective leadership rests upon inspiring voluntary belief in a vision, commitment to making the journey, and renewing belief along the way through signs that we are approaching the promised land.

It is still essential but not sufficient to train leaders in the tools of management, to improve the policies of the organizations in which we lead, and even to find new pools of leaders from outside. We must train leaders in the art of inspiration, to be able to draw from the common pool to shape their own particular journey that still speaks to a large Jewish audience. Thus, we must also weave together an overarching narrative from which leaders can draw inspiration and the cultural resources (stories, symbols, tropes, etc.) that engage us all to believe again not just in the technically possible but (to paraphrase Vaclav Havel) in that which seems almost impossible – the art of renewing ourselves, our Jewish community, and the world.

A Common Educational Endeavor

As educational leaders, this points toward the vital importance of knowing where we are guiding our learners. While the Jewish community over the last couple of decades has focused enormous resources on Jewish education, it has done so unsure and in disagreement about the goals of Jewish education. Thus, we have thoughtfully sought to plant a thousand seeds. Many of these seeds have yielded innovative flowers – diverse pathways to engagement and learning – ranging from Hazon and G-dcast to Storahtelling and Areyvut.

While enormously beneficial, this has also led us to speak different languages and offer competing visions of Jewish learning and living. We would also benefit from recognizing our common bonds and common purpose as educational leaders – reconstructing a shared, overarching narrative that supports multiple pathswhile providing a common language of inspiration and educational guidance.

This has begun to happen. Recent work exploring outcomes for teen educational engagement (Generation Now by The Jewish Education Project, where I was the chief strategy officer before coming to JTS) takes us forward by both pooling collective knowledge and strengthening common language, and moving us toward a shared understanding of what seems to matter in the Jewish life of (non-Orthodox) teens, along with (forthcoming) ways to measure outcomes. At The Davidson School, we have been holding conversations (last June on meaning and purpose) that bring together wisdom from practitioners in the field with scholars in Jewish studies, education, sociology, and beyond.

This should just be the beginning. Leaders – lay and professional – succeed when they learn from one another across institutions, when they build collaborative cultures in their institutions, and when they see themselves as fellow travelers on a journey together. Through research, collaborative gatherings, and publications, we seek to deepen the field’s collective understanding of leadership and the outcomes toward which leaders lead. We offer the Leadership Commons as a space where leadership is cultivated, research and scholarship lead to innovation, and diverse perspectives are woven together into a meaningful tapestry that inspire and guide us toward a shared, vibrant Jewish future.

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.


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