JDS Stories: Portraits of Authentic Leadership

Professional Leadership
Work Life Balance
Vision/ Direction Setting
Personnel Development & Empowerment

This month, Prizmah spoke with four Heads of School, from different schools and diverse backgrounds, in order to explore the concept of “authenticity” in leadership. Knowing that the most successful leaders are those who embrace their unique skills and strengths, we asked these Heads of School to reflect on their path to leadership, what they have learned about themselves, and what they think contributes to their success. Meet our four “authentic leaders”:

Lori Binder has spent nearly her entire life at Gray Academy and has held roles including nursery school student, high school graduate, teacher, Vice Principal, and now Head of School. The continuity and deep knowledge of the Winnipeg community she brings to her position is unique in a world where most professionals move around to multiple companies or organizations over their careers. When you work in a community where you have grown up, it is pretty difficult to avoid being exactly who you are. For Lori, though, being a Head of School was not actually what she thought she was meant to be.

Trusting her gut instincts, she was inspired by time spent studying in Israel to return to Gray Academy as a teacher.  “I always thought I would teach in an early childhood setting, but then I fell in love at first sight teaching high school,” she said. As she took on more administrative responsibilities, her Head of School pushed her to participate in DSLTI (Day School Leadership Training Institute), and in that program she first encountered the ISM publication The Trustee Handbook, where she had an “aha” moment. “I realized that one of the things I loved about being in the classroom was that the big picture was always there, and I knew that I always needed to be challenged and to keep learning. Reading The Trustee Handbook, not exactly an inspirational book, it dawned on me that being a Head of School would mean that I could advance my career and continue to learn.”

Binder credits numerous mentors who not only saw potential in her but also let her explore her own new directions. “Big vision has always been a way of thinking for me,” she said, and she has built her leadership team with a commitment to giving others space to grow and maintaining transparency. “I love the people I work with, and I love what I do.” Being immersed in ongoing professional growth processes, being a continuous learner—about herself, her school, her community—energizes Binder to find new opportunities in the same place she learned her own ABCs.

Linda Foster’s path to day school started with a temp agency. Having run numerous businesses and nonprofit organizations, she had developed a specialty in making order out of chaos. A temp agency placed her at Schechter, which was looking for someone to help their Executive Director get organized as she prepared to leave the school. “A two-week assignment became a full-time job,” said Foster, who took on responsibility for the business side of the school, including development and admission.

Foster recommended to the school’s board that it was too expensive to have two high-paid senior positions (Head of School and Executive Director) and began to think about her next move. When the Head of School left midyear, the board turned to Foster to assume the Headship on an interim basis. After 18 months of smooth operation, the board appointed Foster officially, and she is now in her ninth year.

“I had a wise mentor when I was in business who told me to surround yourself with people who are strong where you are not,” said Foster. With no formal training in education, she took that advice seriously and hires people with strong educational backgrounds. She also is committed to learning every day, reads extensively in the field of education, and is such a strong believer in coaching that she makes sure all members of her leadership team have access to coaching. “You can’t be afraid to ask what is best for the school,” said Foster, who sees herself as a clear thinker and strategic problem solver always looking for ways to improve herself and the school. “Never work to be someone who you are not.”

Yossi Kastan became a Head of School after teaching in a Jewish day school, running his own business, working in banking, and serving as a youth director. The combination of experience in formal Jewish education, informal Jewish education, and business has given Kastan tools to approach the headship successfully. More than skillsets or job training, however, Kastan points to his core beliefs as the heart of what he loves about his job. “I believe in people, in their ability to change the world,” said Kastan. He quoted Avraham Infeld, former president of Hillel International, who defined leadership as moving people from one place to another. “Everyone wants to be moved in some way,” said Kastan, “and to do that, you need to really see people. The only way to do that is really to be seen ourselves.”

Kastan believes that the Head of School sets the tone of a school not with policy but with core beliefs and presence. By sharing and demonstrating over and over the values his school embodies, Kastan gives other people the authority to hold him accountable and, ultimately, to be empowered to act in ways that uphold those same values.

Like Binder, Susie Tanchel began her educational career as a classroom teacher, starting out as one of the founding faculty of the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston (now Gann Academy). It was a love of teaching Tanakh that led her to writing a doctoral dissertation in the fields of Biblical Studies and Education and the educational vision she developed during her years in the classroom that continues to inform her leadership style. Her initial administrative role at Gann Academy focused on leading the school’s informal and formal Jewish education program and school-wide professional development, including building and supervising the professional learning community. A teacher’s teacher, Tanchel is the instructional leader of the school, even as she has built a strong team around her, some of whom function as “thinking partners” for the strategic vision of the school and others who draw her into the details of daily matters of a school.

Tanchel connects deeply with the pluralistic mission of JCDS personally and professionally. “Our sacred work is offering our children many different opportunities to build the skills, capacities, and disposition to engage with those different from themselves with a humble confidence and a compassionate openness,” she said. An expression of JCDS’s pluralistic mission was in fact the hiring of Tanchel, as she was the first out LGBTQ Head of Jewish day school in the nation. She believes that in this courageous choice six years ago, the school’s Board exemplified JCDS’s value of accepting people for who they are and “having all members of our school communities be their best full selves.” Fulfilling the responsibilities of a demanding job can sometimes require balancing authenticity with responsibility. By personal example and by professional practice, Tanchel strikes a balance that empowers others through a culture of honesty and transparency.

Being true to oneself, a common theme among these four diverse Heads, requires both self-awareness and self-acceptance. As these leaders show, there is no one model of success as a Head of School, no singular path to the Headship. If we think of leading a school and holding responsibility for hundreds of children as a privilege, which these leaders unanimously do, then perhaps we can subscribe to the thought of Carl Jung, who wrote, “the privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”