Leading by Relationship

Rabbi Jonathan Berger, Associate Head of School for Judaic Studies and Program, Gross Schechter Day School, Pepper Pike, Ohio

Effective, strong, compassionate leadership requires understanding the importance of relationships. This basic but crucial disposition of leadership develops through the Gross Schechter Day School’s Buddy Program. Our students learn that it isn’t enough to lead by example; they have to lead by relationship.


Many schools look for opportunities to have older and younger students interact. Eighth graders will read to first graders; sixth graders will join second graders for tefillah. These activities can be exciting, memorable and adorable, but aren’t likely to build enduring relationships. At Gross Schechter, we wanted our students to feel a real connection across the grades. So at the beginning of each school year, we match each of our middle school students with one or two children in our Early Childhood Center, two-year-olds through kindergarteners. Once a month, the middle schoolers visit ECC classrooms to get down on the floor, play and talk. At the beginning of the year, the older students write welcome cards to their buddies. They get to know each other and find common interests.


Formal training comes in sixth grade. Besides some basic reminders about appropriate behavior, the older students learn how to respond when their buddy is frustrated, not listening, or feeling upset. In seventh and eighth grade, they learn through ongoing observation and coaching. We are also beginning to introduce some special programs, such as a joint Havdalah service, to create more opportunities for leadership and growth.


We don’t present the program to the students as a leadership initiative, but the leadership lessons are clear. George, an eighth grader, described how he works to connect: “We have to adapt to how they are. If they’re wild, we have to be wild at first, but then teach them to be quiet and talk in a respectful way.” To be effective, leaders must first understand the people they are leading, where they are and where they need to go. Through the Buddy Program, George and his classmates learn to do this every time they engage with their preschool friends.


Aidan, a sixth grader, talked about how he first found common ground with one of his buddies: “We both do gymnastics, so I’ve talked to him about it. I ask him, ‘Did you learn any new skills? When is your next practice?’” As a result of this connection, his buddy trusted him and shared his worries about a sister who was ill. The lesson was clear to Aidan: To have an impact on someone, you have to first build a relationship with them. Once you do, you will be seen differently.


The program makes a difference for the preschool children. Instead of being intimidated by the “big kids,” they see them as older siblings, greet them in the hallways, and look forward to their visits. The real impact, though, is on the middle school students, who come to understand that leadership is based on relationships. They graduate having learned that to be effective leaders, they first need to connect.

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HaYidion Leadership Dispositions Winter 2018
Leadership Dispositions
Winter 2018