HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Boredom: The Real Crisis in Leadership

by Bruce Powell Issue: Attending the Crisis of Leadership
TOPICS : Leadership

Powell urges school heads to avoid making the school sound like the prep school down the block. Instead, he argues, draw inspiration from Jewish tradition and history to create a compelling story about the school.

Do people walk away from the head’s talks saying, “I never saw education quite like that before. This is really interesting”? Do they walk away understanding that Jewish education is about making meaning and purpose in life?

Most heads of school are not trained to be heads. Most of us just fall into it. We are trained to be educators. We are often outstanding principals who understand teaching and curriculum. Few of us have business acumen, a skill we must often acquire by default, not by kavvanah. And even fewer of us are trained in raising money and student recruitment, two of the three existential skills of headship.

The good news is, almost every head acquires skills in fundraising and budgeting and various management structures and often executes well in these key areas. Bottom line: from my 42 years in the field, I firmly believe that we have dedicated, talented people leading our schools.

So, what is the crisis addressed by this issue of HaYidion?

In my view, simply stated, it’s boredom.

To explain: it’s not that we, as heads, are bored. I have never experienced one second of boredom in the job, nor have I ever heard a colleague say s/he is bored.

Rather, I believe that our message to key constituents is often boring. Our school “stories” lack originality. Our school mission statements all sound the same:

We are a co-educational, college preparatory, Jewish day school that allows each child to succeed to his/her highest potential… etc. etc.

I have read hundreds of mission statements and vision statements. I do not feel “grabbed,” or “compelled,” or inspired.

And to be clear, the challenge is not finding the right marketing angle. We so often try to sound like the nearby secular private school and thereby lose our unique character and special vision for education. Yes, we all have a special vision for Jewish education; we all, deep down, know what it is.

The crisis, in my view, is our inability to articulate this vision in a compelling, effective way that transforms our listeners and readers. Do people walk away from the head’s talks or from our printed/on-line materials saying, “I never saw education quite like that before. This is really interesting”? Do they walk away understanding that real education, that Jewish education, is not about measuring; rather, it is about making meaning and purpose in life? Do we promote the “same old, same old” tune of high test scores, small classes, individualized attention, endless extracurricular activities, and constant tacit comparisons to other fine “private” schools?

Or, do we take the big risk and provide a story that parents and students have never heard, and do not know they want or need, and can only find within the sacred contexts of our schools? Do we have the guts to “lead” with our core values? Can we assume that our parents know that our academics are superb but that our unique task is very different than that of the “typical” school? Can we stop striving to be the posh prep school down the street? Do we dare to lead with Judaism and Jewish values? Do we dare not to be boring?

In 1991, while serving as the first headmaster at a prominent LA Jewish high school, I was trying to figure out how to distinguish ourselves from the many posh prep schools in our city. I came across the brochure of one of the best of those schools. It gave a detailed retrospective of the school’s history. There was a photo of boys, circa 1940, playing sports. The caption said something like: “We train our boys in the highest ideals of Greece and Rome!”

In one fell swoop, I got it.

Our schools “raise up our students in the highest ideals of Jerusalem.”

Our schools see knowledge not only as a path to power, but as a way to wisdom.

Our schools understand the “rights of free speech” but teach the “obligations of speech.” Our students know what to say to a bride on her wedding day; and they know the power and dangers of speech.

Our schools guide students in a path of “reflective eating” rather than “fast food.” We use the “speed bumps” of blessings to slow things down, to promote appreciation and health.

Our schools teach that beauty is spiritual, not material, and that the “best” is the enemy of the “good.” These values promote emotional health, remove hubris, and motivate us to continue our learning. I would never go to a physician who thinks s/he is the “best”; I would, however, fly with Captain Sullenberger, who never thought he was the best, but continued to learn. And now we all know he is the best.

In our schools, art is for the purpose of uplifting the human soul, to follow our lead artist, Betzalel, who walked “in the shadow of G-d.”

Our schools understand the “rights of free speech” but teach the “obligations of speech.” Our students know what to say to a bride on her wedding day; and they know the power and dangers of speech.

Our schools teach that every human being is created betzelem Elokim and within that particularistic ideal is the source of universal courage and motivation for life itself. Children who understand this Jewish vision lead lives of greatness and humility; they understand that “advanced placement” kindness is of equal importance, or more important, than advanced placement chemistry. They become chemists, and professionals, and leaders, who understand their sacred purpose in the world.

And from there the compelling story unfolded.

Our Jewish day schools raise up Jewish leaders for whom Jewish values guide and shape their vision. Our schools educate great scientists who possess a moral imagination and promote ethical action. Our schools are the antidote to the “Race to Nowhere.” We are the “where”; we are the destination, not a pass-through for top college admissions. We are not about measuring; we are about meaning. We understand that having a PhD does not create a moral imperative. One can be a PhD and an SOB.

Our story gets even better. It is compelling and historic.

Our story fully resides in the context of the American story. The logo at Yale is in Hebrew (and our day-school kids can actually read it and translate it and tell you where to find it in the Torah); Hebrew, alongside Latin and Greek, was a language of the graduation speeches at Harvard for its first two-hundred years; James Madison partly majored in Hebrew at Princeton. Alexander Hamilton went to a Jewish day school in the Bahamas (the Christian schools denied entrance to bastard children). Yes, even before many of us came to these shores and wept with tears of freedom as our ancestors sailed past Lady Liberty in New York Harbor, Judaism was shaping the values and philosophical landscape of a new nation.

And it was within the context of America, the only major nation and large Jewish community left standing after World War II, where the mandate to rebuild and replace a thousand years of Jewish learning, and culture, and teachers, and students, and libraries destroyed in the Shoah, took root. American Jews rose to meet this challenge and our schools are a part of this great unfolding Jewish story; our students, steeped in Jewish values, become the universal contributors to that grand experiment in democracy we call America.

And, by the way, your children can choose electives in robotics, bio-technology, nano-science, three-dimensional printing, advanced placement courses, and play on our award-winning and character building athletic teams. But they will understand why they are doing these things.

So welcome to our school; welcome to Jewish history; welcome to a world of contribution to our nation. And yes, we will get your child into a top college (with an active Hillel) where s/he will take powerful Jewish values into the “real” world and transform that “reality” into one of meaning and purpose.

Let’s end the crisis of boredom; let our heads, with help from boards and teachers, develop their school’s unique metaphoric language and vision. Let’s not pander to what is popular; let’s have the courage to create exciting and compelling Jewish stories that “sell” who we really are every day. Let’s not back down on the core of our being; if we do, what are we? And if not now, when?

And let’s be sure to tell these stories with confidence in their power and integrity. And let’s be sure to deliver the story through motivated, competent, and loving teachers who live and teach our story every day.♦

Dr. Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California. He can be reached at BPowell@ncjhs.org.

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Attending the Crisis of Leadership

Day school leadership, especially headship, confronts all kinds of crises: regular school crises, driven by finances or parents; short tenure (averaging 2.5 years); limited pool of qualified applicants; and an impossible workload with little room for family life. These articles analyze aspects of the problem and offer remedies that professionals and lay leaders might implement in their schools.

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