Rabbi Soffer is Head of School at Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon, MA. Before SHAS, he was Rabbi-in-Residence at Carmel Academy in Greenwich, CT. In 2020 Rabbi Soffer was awarded the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize, which recognizes emerging leaders in the field of Jewish education. Rabbi Soffer is a doctoral student at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. He is currently Rabbinic Mentor for the Day School Leadership Training Institute. He lives in Sharon with his wife, Dr. Marti Soffer, and and their children, Maayan, Reiut, Shoshana, and Roey.

Leadership Success: Position and Disposition

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One of the great mysteries and most intriguing storylines in professional sports is the selection of top draft picks. Entire departments with countless staff members and endless budgets exist with the sole purpose of scouting top talent. Yet positive results are hardly guaranteed. For every Lebron James, there is an Anthony Bennett. For every John Elway, there is a Ryan Leaf. Talking heads spend hours debating what contributed to a particular player’s success or failure. Yet, like clockwork, the debate inevitably resurfaces the next year, just in time for the next draft.

In a certain sense, day schools face a similar challenge. According to one recent article, the average tenure of Jewish day school heads is 4-5 years, barely enough time to get one's footing. In facing this leadership crisis, we ought to consider the factors that tend to our leaders’ success. Every school leader was selected because a community believed in them. So why are so many of us running away after just a few years? How can schools keep their talent on the team for longer?

When pundits discuss prospects, it often boils down to two factors: the position of the team, and their own disposition, skill, and attitude. In other words, the two harbingers of success are position and disposition. In a school setting, position is really the school’s general health. A functional board, a responsible budget, a functioning leadership team, predictable enrollment and dependable development goals are just a few of factors. Disposition in a school leader is their general attitude: their comfort with change, their patience and willingness to learn, and their ability to stay calm in moments of chaos.

Position 

Rather than discuss these trends in the abstract, I will offer my own first four years as a case study. As I have reflected on my headship with colleagues and peers, it has become evident to me that, much like college students being drafted into pro leagues, there are so many factors that contribute to my general satisfaction in this position. 

From an institutional vantage point, I want to highlight three aspects that have led us to success: a clear mission, a collaborative culture and strong support for the head. Though these will likely be unsurprising to any sitting head, they are factors I don’t think I sufficiently evaluated when I pursued the headship. I got lucky; hopefully for others, they will be a conscious choice. 

The first factor I would note is a clear and shared mission. Our school mission states, “We build community and better the future, one child at a time.” We know that our mission is to build our community by serving every single child. This influences everything for pedagogic decisions to budgetary ones. We can proudly share that no child has ever been turned away because they could not afford our school. We have no tuition minimum, and do not recruit differently based on a family’s finances. We still face difficult financial and pedagogic decisions, but we have a shared language and framework for these decisions. 

The second factor is what I call the culture of best intentions. At the start of every year, the staff affirms a pledge of our three truths: We believe that everyone in this room is kind (defined as generally interested in the success of others), smart (defined as able to understand complexities of particular circumstances), and invested (defined as believing in our mission). Our lay leadership has a similar culture. We do not accept a culture of rumors, separate Whatsapp groups and cliques.

The final factor that I cannot underscore enough is a supportive board. A couple of anecdotes illustrate this. In a recent conversation with the incoming board chair, I commented to her that my wife was attending a show with our friends instead of me, since it conflicted with a meeting. Not only did she encourage me to take the time to myself, she texted my wife when I demurred. The longest conversation at my most recent HOSEC meeting was relaying a board fear that I am working too many hours, and a request that I send them a list of tasks they could take on, on my behalf.

The support of the board is pivotal, though insufficient. It takes an entire community’s commitment to make a head truly feel valued. Though I very much live in the community where I work, and though I am often asked school questions on a Shabbos morning or at the supermarket, I rarely feel accosted or uncomfortable. It is clear I am supported and cared for, even if I am always “on.” I love my work, and am generally happy to discuss it, even during Shabbos meal. That happiness, however, hinges on an assumption that it’s conversational, never confrontational.

Disposition 

The question of disposition is deeply personal. There’s no single way to be a successful head; each person has qualities that can inform the ways that they relate to the work, their colleagues and the community. Two of my own dispositions have helped me greatly in my leadership: time prioritization and personal vision.

When I look at my day (or week, or year), where do I want to devote my hours? In my first year as a school administrator I worked with a coach (Elliot Goldberg) to draft how I would like to spend my days. I then tracked two weeks of time to see how it was actually being spent. Where there was disconnect, I was able to change some habits. 

As I transitioned to the headship, this way of thinking has been incredibly helpful. For sure, this job does take many hours. No matter how strong my prioritization skills, there are many nights, weekends and breaks when I simply have to work. Nonetheless, it has been very clear since I began as a head that I will not work between 5:30-7:30 pm. That is family time. Success in this position demands awareness that it is a busy day, but busy need not mean enervating. As long as I am working on the tasks that are most important, both personally and professionally, I can feel supported.

The second factor is a vision for the school. In the Winter 2018 HaYidion, school leaders wrote about the dispositions from which they lead. I resonated deeply with that framing. This disposition is your fuel. If you can tend to this disposition, you tend to your own sense of worth. Authors wrote about creativity, ambition, emotional intelligence and others. There are so many different fuels. 

For me, this disposition is Torat chessed. I believe, with every fiber of my being, that a strong Torah education can give children a sense of identity, increasing their capacity for connection, kindness and groundedness. Everyday I hope to reimagine how we can have these values permeate our entire school, from recess to general studies to parshat hashavua. Even when I am caught up with technical tasks (budgeting, program planning), I am still driven by this essential belief. To inspiring heads I challenge: What is the disposition that will drive you, through the good and the bad?

When JaMarcus Russell, perhaps the most infamous “bust” in NFL history, was asked to reflect on his career, he spoke about a coaching change early on in his tenure as a quarterback. Suddenly, he said, “I didn’t feel like they were there for me.” The position, as it were, changed and didn’t set him up for success. With regard to failures of disposition, he said, “Looking back now, I was reaching out for help.” It is a remarkable insight. What we see as a failure of disposition may be a breakdown of position or a cry for help. As a day school community, our challenge is to answer that cry. Together.