Give Jewish leaders a hearing, not an earful

Give Jewish leaders a hearing, not an earful

Having shepherded hundreds of people through Jewish leadership workshops, I am asked frequently why we don’t have better, more competent Jewish leaders, lay and professional, in our institutions.

My answer: We don’t deserve them.

It’s often said that people get the leaders they deserve. Because we have made it so hard to lead, good people often don’t get involved. They reserve their precious time for institutional affiliations that will not become mired down in vitriolic arguments, uncivil debates, name calling, and negativity. As Jews, we’re not always good followers.

At a regional conference for Jewish communal professionals a few months ago, I asked a room of 200 people, by a show of hands, how many of them had experienced an egregiously hostile encounter with a layperson over the course of the past year. From where I was standing, it looked like everyone had a hand raised.

So I changed the question: “Has anyone in this room not had an egregiously hostile encounter with a lay leader this past year?” One person raised a hand. I asked him to stand up so that we could all congratulate him.

It’s not only the lay-professional relationship that is suffering. Internal work cultures can also become acidic. Sadly, we’ve created atmospheres of incivility where it becomes very hard for leaders to lead. It’s not only their failure; it’s also ours. We’ve created a consumer-savvy culture where if we don’t like something we take it back, return it, or exchange it. And it has spilled over into our interactions on other levels.

Listen to people in an institution complain: “If you don’t get rid of this teacher, I’m pulling my kid from this school.” Or, “I don’t like this program. I’m revoking my membership.”

Consumers do that. Stakeholders don’t.

When things go wrong and we see leaders as the sole owners of our Jewish institutions, they become an easy target. But if we all saw ourselves as owners, investors, and stakeholders in institutions, problems no longer belong to someone else. They belong to us. We each become more personally accountable. And we become more civil in the process because we understand up close how hard it is to navigate politics thoughtfully.

It’s difficult to move people out of their comfort zone, but as one leadership guru says, resistance is information. People naturally push back when leaders push them.

People should push back if change is authentic and the environments we create are diverse and tolerant. The question is not one of quashing resistance; it’s how we push back that has become the problem. We don’t need to say everything we think. We need to teach ourselves what not to say in order to challenge leaders without humiliating them. When they feel denigrated, we all lose.

The following aphorism is attributed to the medieval Spanish poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol: “In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening; the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth, teaching others.”

If we were able to apply this five-step process, we could create a sea change in leadership and followship cultures. Silence and listening would force us to hear the pain of leaders who just want out. We need to hear others and hear ourselves when we’ve gotten out of line, when we need to apologize, and when we just need to stop interrupting.

If we are able to remember and practice that which we know has worked historically, we could use more sane and civil methods of achieving our goals.

Lastly, Ibn Gabirol has asked us to become teachers. We all can be teachers of civility. When we are spoken to badly, we must create educable moments and let people know that we can’t hear them when we are addressed in a way that is beneath our dignity, no matter who we are or where they stand in an organizational culture.

We need to affirm that Jewish institutional life is about creating warm, nurturing, and welcoming environments, and that we have zero-tolerance for any language that goes against the ethos of our Jewish values.

We lovingly own this enterprise called Jewish life. We can’t give it up or give it back or exchange it. We can, however, do a lot to dignify it.

This essay was distributed by JTA.

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