Come Together: Inspired Leadership Through Inspiring Leadership

“Step up, step back, introduce yourself.” As a participant in various Jewish youth experiences growing up, I recall this cheer to be often used as an icebreaker. It was also a first step in both building community and cultivating a sense of leadership or, as we call it, Hineni, stepping up, in our Jewish youth. Reflecting all these years later, I want to challenge the cheer. Perhaps effective leadership today is actually about stepping back to step up by casting one’s spotlight on those around us, rather than focusing on our own talents and efforts, in order to introduce them and lift them up.

At the Leadership Commons, part of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, we capture this through a phrase popularized by The Beatles, Come together. This phrase transmits to our alumni and our larger field that, as a result of learning with us, they will learn to lead not solely through their own ideas, actions and mantras. Rather, they will cultivate invention, innovation and inspiration in those around them through facilitation. They will also facilitate using the unifying canon of Jewish tradition—the text that is the foundation of our common purpose and work to bring different folks together to create a spirit of collaboration under this purpose.

Facilitation draws inspiration from the constructivist and experiential education philosophy at the core of The William Davidson school. To facilitate is not to dictate; it is to set a framework and environment that empowers others to lead. At the Leadership Commons, we have seven leadership attributes that permeate our various leadership institutes. One is, “Empower leadership in others and cultivate inclusive cultures in the institutions they lead.” 

The head of school or Jewish studies department head, the director of a Jewish early childhood center, the executive of a JCC, the director of congregational learning or the camp director does not always have to be the one who is out front “leading” in the traditional sense. Certainly there are instances when the leader does need to be out front. That said, the more any person in these roles can create a working environment that fosters creativity and risk-taking, and that inspires others in their ranks to answer the call of Hineni, the more effective their organization will be and the more desirable their place of work will be for others. 

Put another way, we know as trainers of these aspiring executives that we are doing our job well when each participant understands that their role is not about them. They aren’t Moses, who primarily operated on his own with guidance only from God. While there were moments of Moses sharing leadership, most notably with his father-in-law, Yitro, his primary mode of leadership was to do it himself and lead with a top-down approach. He literally lifted up his rod and held out his own arm over the sea to split it, so that the Israelites could march through to dry ground. 

Our alumni shouldn’t feel like they have to part the Red Sea, go up to Mt. Sinai and get the tablets, or talk to (or strike) the rock on their own to lead effectively. They are, instead, like Joshua, a facilitator of collaboration. The Talmud says that when God invested Joshua as the leader of the Israelites, God did so with “some of the authority.” The Talmud interprets this text to mean not all of the authority Moses had (Bava Batra 75a), suggesting that Joshua was to lead differently. Our alumni, like Joshua, learn to lead by bringing people together to give them the spotlight and the responsibility of exercising leadership. 

Of course, we also teach our participants that their leadership is about them too. It is about their passion, personal Jewish journeys and career pursuits. It is about understanding and owning both their core strengths and areas of growth as professionals. It is about their recognizing, owning and navigating their own vulnerabilities, anxieties and potential pitfalls. We budget significant time in our programs for reflective practice, and we employ seasoned mentors to work deeply with our participants in order to be sure each “knows thyself.” To be a master at leadership through the disposition of facilitation is to be confident and take advantage of one’s own professional make-up. To know deeply our own areas of strength and weakness allows us ultimately not to make it about us at all, and to cast the spotlight on all whom we gather to come together: our boards, our students and their families, and of course, our staff and faculty.

Leading through facilitation, however, does not make one’s leadership disposition complete. Leadership must be grounded in something that is bigger than ourselves, our institutions or our communities. A foundation of the learning that occurs in our leadership institutes is the study of Jewish text. Strictly defined, we study selected sections of Talmud, Bible, Midrash, as well as modern texts and commentaries and the lessons each offers as we consider and refine leadership best practices and each participant’s evolving leadership philosophy. Broadly defined, we see each case study that examines a real life institutional scenario, any narrative from Jewish history, and the personal journey of every child as a text to be explored, debated and revered. 

Studying text enables our participants to craft their vision for their institution grounded in Jewish history and language, as well as in the lives of the people they lead today. Another two of our Leadership Commons leadership attributes are, “Promote a vision for Jewish education and the Jewish future rooted in Jewish values and scholarship,” and “Commit to lifelong learning and reflective practice in themselves and those they lead.” Both remind us that leadership is best exercised when one is also a constant student, always eager to gain new knowledge and understandings from studying text, the world, oneself and those one is responsible for leading. Guided by their learning, the leaders we cultivate find their authentic voice through the study of texts that are rooted in thousands of years of ancient tradition and the ways in which that tradition becomes palpably relevant today. 

Lastly, we teach our participants that their work should not be performed in the vacuum of their own corner office or with just a small coterie of executive staff or board members. To effectively lead through the dispositions of facilitation and text, one must also prioritize coming together. One must foster shared learning, a culture of common pursuit, and a continuous spirit of collaboration.

Throughout the experience of our Day School Leadership Training Institute, one of several leadership institutes of The Leadership Commons, heads of school from across the continent come together for discussions on leadership issues of substance and relevance to each of their work. For example, we recently held a discussion on issues of gender and leadership in our day schools. We facilitated a conversation that empowered all participants to engage, introduced text to support the discussion—the biblical narrative of Hagar—and perhaps most important, fostered the sharing of multiple, different, sometimes conflicting perspectives from the group. We listened and shared ideas openly, honestly and with mutual respect. Bringing our collective wisdom together strengthened our participants’ individual leadership capacities while developing a sense of collaborative leadership for the Jewish day school sector as a whole.

We at the Leadership Commons are only strong if we facilitate the modeling of these leadership dispositions—facilitation, text and together—that we hold dear and hope to see in each of our now 500+ alumni and growing.

“Step back, step up, introduce and raise up each other.” It may not be the smoothest of cheers, and I doubt we’ll hear it shouted by children at a day school assembly or summer camp anytime soon. But it is perhaps a better way to exercise leadership in our Jewish institutions today: Exercise leadership by empowering those around us to answer the call of Hineni, being grounded in something larger then ourselves and enabling those around us to come together. That is leadership that can inspire us all.

Mark S. Young
Leadership Dispositions
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership