HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The Classroom Boardroom: Lessons from Wexner

by B. Elka Abrahamson Issue: Attending the Crisis of Leadership

The president of the Wexner Foundation, which has educated hundreds of Jewish lay leaders, offers guidance for creating boards with the excitement, growth and collaboration designed into their programs.

The Jewish community will stagnate or flourish based upon the quality of its leadership. Today, this is the “gevalt” heard round the Jewish world. “Where have all the leaders gone?”

Leslie H. Wexner, founder and CEO of Limited Brands, was asked in the early 1980s if he would get in line to become campaign chair of a major national Jewish organization. “I don’t think so,” he responded.

“Why not?” he was asked.

“Because growing up, my folks moved around a lot, and I never had much of a serious Jewish education. I am really not prepared to be that leader. It would be like my asking you to become chairman of The Limited. What do you know about women’s clothing?”

Later, Les realized that others probably felt similarly when they were approached to assume Jewish leadership positions. Either they accepted such positions despite feeling unprepared, or they declined those positions, depriving the Jewish community of their considerable talents. In either case, the Jewish community lost out.

In response to this experience, Les, together with Rabbi Herbert A. Friedman (z”l) conceived and established the Wexner Heritage Program in 1985. The purpose of the program is to educate Jewish communal leaders in the history, thought, tradition and contemporary challenges of the Jewish people. The program seeks to expand the leadership vision of its members, deepen their Jewish values, and bring a Jewish language of discourse to their policy and decision-making in the community. By upgrading their skills in these ways, the Heritage Program enables its members to serve their communities with an enhanced sense of Jewish authenticity, confidence, and effectiveness.

From the very beginning, Leslie Wexner viewed leadership as the decisive factor in human affairs, the element that makes a difference in business, government and community life. Les knew nearly three decades ago what many have come to realize over time, that the Jewish community will stagnate or flourish based upon the quality of its leadership. Today, this is the “gevalt” heard round the Jewish world. “Where have all the leaders gone?” More specifically, “Where will we find our next effective board member or dazzling day school board chairperson?” It is a good question. But is it a new one? Was there a time when finding chair people and qualified board members was easier?

Some, as evidenced by the theme of this publication, have named this alleged dearth of leadership a crisis. I will refrain from either agreeing or claiming otherwise. But from my particular perch in the Jewish world I am convinced that talented leaders do, in fact, abound in our Jewish orbit though we have not, as a collective, done our best to capture the imagination or attention of our own talent. At the same time we have, as a community, developed a set of increasingly higher demands for those we call upon to “lead.” And, to be honest, we propel willing, energetic, individuals from the ranks of room parent to board chair with warp speed. Anyone who puts a toe in the waters of school involvement is pulled swiftly into the moving currents of institutional leadership sometimes knowing only how to tread water.

We make the assumption that those who offer any kind of organizational support are interested in and prepared for all kinds of responsibilities. If we care about our institutions, and especially about the success, soul and well-being of the individuals within those institutions, current board members and chairpersons must think carefully about the trajectory, expectations, and preparations of those we recruit to lead. Sink or swim is not an effective leadership philosophy. How do we draw and retain appropriate leaders to our boards?

The Wexner Heritage Program has consistently drawn talented individuals to its cohorts despite the serious time commitment required for participation. It is a remarkable experiment that has enjoyed unwavering success for nearly three decades. Why?

One Heritage faculty member of long standing, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg answers with this, “[Heritage participants are] seeking Jewish growth. They are not bound by the boxes and barriers in American Jewry. They are pluralists and idealists who turn ideas into action and leadership responsibilities.”

I think he is correct, but I don’t know that all of the candidates we select for our program begin the experience as Rabbi Greenberg so describes. We provide a carefully crafted classroom in which individuals can explore alternate perspectives to tightly held assumptions about Judaism, about Jewish institutions, and about change within the Jewish world. With the right mix of people around the table in tandem with outstanding facilitators and faculty, we witness time and again the transformative potential that is tapped among these cohorts. We have taken the time to articulate a set of values that infuses the way in which we strive to exercise leadership and informs the particular characteristics we seek in volunteer leaders.

The Heritage Program is a precious space in which Jews of vastly diverse backgrounds and approaches to Jewish life come together. We embrace, indeed celebrate this diversity and labor to conduct conversations across difference. Giving others the benefit of the doubt as to their sincerity, and integrity forms the baseline of our respectful engagement with each other.

Imagination and curiosity are encouraged. These intellectual exercises require the use of special mind muscles. Plenty of smart people fail to knock on the door of their own imagination, fail to color outside of the lines of current organizational perimeters, and cling to what is instead of asking “what might be?”

We place a high premium on developing and shaping emotional intelligence, the ability to be self -reflective, self -aware, to self-coach in group settings, and to manage our desires, our fears, and our vulnerabilities.

The pace of change in Jewish life, especially within organizational life, is measured. Adaptive change requires a steadfast commitment to what can be a lengthy process. We need to move forward on many organizational fronts. We must be attentive to ideas that emerge from the margins and those in the mainstream with a delicate combination of urgency, optimism and patience.

Laughter fuels our energy...leadership, though a serious undertaking, should be fun.

Finally, we celebrate the quality of humility which allows us to truly listen. Humility enables us to embrace our own shortcomings, blind spots, and to constantly evolve. Humility paves the path to effective collaboration which we believe is at the heart of effective Jewish leadership.

These are the middot we seek in emerging leaders and are qualities we employ in assessing our work as professionals. Of course, these italicized items are mere words, platitudes on the page unless we actively strive to live by them and check our work against this demanding list. These (and other) qualities shape a rich text to be studied, interpreted, and expressed through behavior.

What if our day school boards took on the challenge of identifying leadership characteristics to which its members aim to adhere to in conducting school business? To ask the question differently, what if we expected from the day school board room exactly what we demand from the day school classroom: articulated objectives, dynamic facilitation, ongoing learning, engaging conversations, an enthusiastic exchange of ideas, good listening, playfulness, a space of curiosity and imagination, nutritious snacks (and an occasional cupcake), stimulating homework, fair evaluation of progress, laughter, creativity, and effective collaboration among a diverse group of participants who respect one other? Who wouldn’t want to be invited to join a “board community” that could be so described?

To be fair, we benefit from the opportunity to select Heritage members through a rigorous process. Distinct from our day school or organizational boards, candidates interested in the program complete applications and interviews for consideration. Because we believe that leadership is fundamentally about orchestrating meaningful change, these candidates provide written answers to questions seeking a personal vision for the Jewish community. They have in mind grand and sweeping changes as well as organization-specific transformations. We put together what we believe are representative community cohorts designed to surface complicated conversations wherein leaders will, over time, develop a community perspective rather than an insular one.

The day school board should likewise reflect the entire community it serves, and its members should consider exactly how the institution fits into the constellation of the wider Jewish and civic community. The members of that board should be part of a circle of learning, a spirited classroom holding the interest of the institution and its lived values in high esteem. The boardroom should mirror best practice, not relegate it to flat discussion. And board members would do well to identify and then bridge the gap between the school’s stated and demonstrated values.

Day school boards have serious agendas to tackle. And yes, Rabbi Tarfon is wildly waving his raised arm in the back of the room and declaring, “Hayom katzar vehamlachah merubah… the day is short and the task is great” (Avot 2:20). Indeed. Having served many years on the board of our (gem of a) community day school, I know well the constant pressure of fundraising, enrollment, facilities, soaring tuition, retention and securing outstanding professional leadership. A board is bound to fulfill a set of primary responsibilities essential to healthy institutional governance.

Nonetheless, serving on a board should be viewed as a privilege and as an opportunity for personal Jewish growth. Time spent in the board room can be fulfilling and stimulating when it is not only a place to talk about shaping the Jewish identity of children, but also a place for adults to reflect on their own Jewish stories, their own Jewish growth. Divrei Torah, fairly commonplace (I dare hope) at the organizational boardroom table, can take the form of such stories either through the lens of traditional texts or as texts unto themselves. A collection of board members interested in the educational excellence and Jewish character of a school will develop a profound interest in the Jewish character of one another.

Allowing board members to be moved and motivated to connect to one another within the context of a meeting can lead board members back to the essential meaning of that word. Meet: to come into the presence of another. Pressing business pushes aside the important work of knowing who is at the table, of playing with new ways of conducting conversation, for small group/breakout brainstorming to confront challenges, or for a short few minutes of hevrutah to expand thinking. How many boards allow reflection time to ask and answer, “How are we doing? Are we listening to each other? Are multiple voices being heard around this table? Are we conducting our business according to our values? Do you feel your talents are being utilized? What are you taking away from this meeting? What frustrated you? What excited you?” I am describing real-time assessment of the board’s work, an open progress report achieved in a few minutes. While a brief reflection won’t take the place of the “parking lot post-meeting debrief,” it will minimize it, it will keep more of the meeting in the room and not outside of it, and it will build trust among colleagues in a refreshing climate of increased transparency and openness.

Finally, place a high premium on strong, focused facilitation. Day school and other organizational boards must recognize that how a meeting is conducted directly affects outcomes as well as “buzz.” Board members deserve a thoughtful encounter with co-leaders. It is unlikely and even unnecessary for a board chair or president to be a highly skilled facilitator.

I propose a new role be considered for our boards; an experienced meeting facilitator, a volunteer leader who understands both the art and skill of conducting important conversations in an open, thoughtful, and measured fashion. Seek out a facilitator who can bring out the best in board participants, manage a multiplicity of voices, trigger creative propositions, and generate inclusive, deep, and open conversations. The meeting facilitator, seated next to the president or chair at each meeting, would conduct meetings in much the same way a quality teacher navigates a thoughtful lesson. I suggest a facilitator participate only in that role, not as a voting member of a board, and without a particular point of view. The role of the facilitator is to structure board time so as to maximize engagement, creativity, problem-solving, Jewish identity growth, and learning around the table. The business agenda of the institution would be enhanced and not hindered within such a boardroom environment.

Wouldn’t you (even) apply to sit on such a board? ♦

Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson is president of The Wexner Foundation, wexnerfoundation.org. She can be reached at eabrahamson@wexner.net.


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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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