In the Issue: Leadership Dispositions

This, then, is the leadership lesson of Moses: to know the limits of one’s abilities, to know the limits of one’s autonomy, and to know the limits of one’s authority.
Stephen Garfinkel, “The Man Moses, The Leader Moses”

In the burgeoning fields of leadership studies and leadership development programs, the growing consensus agrees with this lesson that Moses’s example taught thousands of years ago. Until recently, leaders were cast in a heroic mold. They were looked up to, as if standing on a pedestal, expected to provide inspiration with every word and gesture. Leaders were to be revered as the decision-makers, the arbiters, unique possessors of an institution’s vision, mission, values. They acted single-handedly, relying primarily on their own inerrant judgment. All others were cast as followers, miniature versions of the leader; they were understood to be doing a good job to the extent that they internalized the directions laid down by the leader. The leader presented the organization’s sole face, sole voice; people on the outside identified the organization with the leader.

Today’s view of leadership could not be more different. The leading model speaks of “distributive” or “collaborative” leadership. Like Moses, the contemporary leader openly admits that he or she cannot bear the burden alone. Given the increasing load of responsibilities incumbent on leaders, in day schools and beyond, this recognition is both true and highly liberating. Today people speak of “leadership” rather than a “leader.” Leadership no longer connotes an individual but a team of people, with a range of skills and assignments, who operate collectively. The leadership team has faith that their work will be much stronger together than the work of a lone individual. Members meet as a whole and in groups, formally and informally, in a frequent, ongoing and regular manner, to manage the work of leadership together. Responsibilities, decision-making and the spotlight now can be shared among colleagues.

In various ways, the articles in this issue reflect this paradigm shift of leadership. The authors all reflect upon “dispositions,” a catch-all term covering qualities, character traits and commitments that leaders of Jewish day schools need in order to succeed and thrive, personally and professionally, in this rewarding but challenging environment. What is the special sauce to be a day school leader? Can the ingredients be listed, gathered and packaged? Or instead, are we talking about general human characteristics from which, through some combination of experience, skillful training and coaching, and most importantly, the artfulness of the practitioner, a respected leader emerges?

This issue grew out of a report that Prizmah commissioned from Rosov Consulting, with funding from The AVI CHAI Foundation, entitled “The Learning Leadership Landscape: Experiences and Opportunities for Jewish Day School Personnel.” Written by Alex Pomson and Frayda Gonshor Cohen, the report summarizes the literature on leadership in a list of five categories of core capacities that day school leaders require. Capacities, meaning managerial skills, can in principle be taught, and the report surveys programs currently training day school leaders, identifying needs and opportunities for new kinds of leadership programs.

Alongside capacities, the report provides a list of dispositions vital to day school leadership. For half of the articles in the issue, we presented this list to a number of day school leaders. Each selected one disposition, reflecting upon the influence it has exerted over his or her career. For the other half, we asked people who work in leadership training, for day schools, Jewish organizations or more broadly, to zero in on a disposition (or a few) that they consider pivotal and seek to cultivate in their students. The articles are braided together to draw connections between perspectives that approach the subject from different angles.

To start off, we invited Pomson and Gonshor Cohen to frame the subject of dispositions with an explanation of how they discovered their importance and arrived at this list. Taubenfeld Cohen and Cappell lay out Prizmah’s plan for strengthening lay and professional leadership in day schools. The first pair of articles examine qualities that are equal parts elusive and foundational: Joel weighs the centrality of trust in his relationship with different stakeholders; Brown considers the elements that compose leadership presence. Next, Jones describes the role of creativity in his leadership philosophy, and Bernstein and Mali discuss the need for leaders to develop their creative muscles in order to stretch beyond their comfort zone. Kasper investigates the nature of her ambition; Douglas insists upon the importance for leaders to confront challenging issues directly through conversation, and Bossewitch applies a Jewish lens to this approach. Two authors focus on board leadership—Levy on visionary strategic thinking, and Decker on planfulness for board management. Oberman presents the humbling experience of a leader spending a day as a student, and Cooks argues that leaders need to be brave by showing vulnerability.

In our spread of short features from schools, we present a range of initiatives developed to cultivate student leadership. The next articles explore the importance of relationships for day school leaders: Englander on empathy, Young on collaboration; Stein on emotional intelligence, Feiman-Nemser and Loewenstein on teacher leaders. Lapidus explores day school leadership as a Jewish calling; Cannon shows how school leaders can be trained to lead Jewishly. The last pair of authors take the long view: Poupko Kletenik describes how her passion for Jewish learning led her to day school leadership, which in turn stoked that passion; and Levisohn balances the rush for solutions against the ballast of “sustained focus, sobriety, maturity, systematic thinking.”

May this issue help you to discover and reflect upon your own dispositions that keep you engaged and passionate for the work that you do, day in and day out, for your Jewish day school.

Elliott Rabin
Leadership Dispositions
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership