In my observation, professionals are more invested in the lay-professional relationship than are lay leaders. Professionals generally have more at stake. They gain more when these relationships are successful; they feel more supported, have more of a voice and enjoy more opportunities to share their expertise and experience. They also have more to lose if the relationships sour: Donations suffer, volunteer time dwindles, and sometimes even their jobs are at risk. The lopsided imbalance of power impoverishes both the efficiency and the holiness of this relationship.
Most Jewish organizations focus attention on the lay-professional partnership by emphasizing clear communication, division of roles, a shared vision of the work and respect. These are all critical aspects of high-functioning organizations, but they do not go deep enough. They almost always assume that if relationships are friendly, that is sufficient. Friendliness, however, is quickly erased when personality conflicts or disagreements arise between the professional and lay leadership. And at the very moment when robust debate is critical, self-silencing becomes the norm because it’s safer.
Within school settings, heads, principals, administrators and teachers are often afraid of lay leaders. Sometimes, they aren’t empowered to offer opinions or don’t feel sufficiently protected or valued, especially in a time of crisis. In my own leadership work, I’ve found that the issue rarely discussed, and the one that is most foundational to successful working relationships, is trust. Without genuine, two-sided trust exhibited in explicit and implicit ways, both publicly and privately, it is very difficult to achieve meaningful goals together.
Jewish texts have a lot to say about trust. Not surprisingly, the word for faith and for trust has the same root. Emunah is at the heart of our relationship with God, yet sometimes we forget that it’s also at the center of our relationships with others, especially in working partnerships where there are strong difference of opinion. That’s when faith is really tested and also really necessary.
There’s a striking Jewish text that brings this message home. Abraham’s task of building a new nation depended on two tasks: settling the land and starting a family. He is vastly successful at the first and unsuccessful, at least initially, at the second. In Genesis chapter 15, God promises the barren couple future offspring: “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them... So shall your offspring be.” God imparted a greater vision than Abraham could have even imagined. Without a clue as to how achieve this objective, Abraham, nevertheless, had immense trust in the future and in his partnership with God. “Abram trusted (he’emin) the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Rashi comments here, “The Holy One, blessed be He, accounted it unto Abraham as a merit, because of the faith with which he had trusted in Him.” With trust, all is possible.
Abraham had what Stephen Covey calls high trust, in his book The Speed of Trust. “In a high-trust relationship,” Covey writes, “you can say the wrong thing, and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.” Strong relationships between board chairs, board members and professionals depend on high trust, where we give others the benefit of the doubt, assume good intentions and give each other encouragement to dream big together. In high-trust relationships, people are given the space to fail as long as there is honesty, clarity and encouragement. Inherently, we believe in the goodness of each person we work with and assume good will.
Covey describes 13 aspects of high-trust relationships: These include straight talk, demonstrations of respect, high levels of transparency, the righting of wrongs, and displays of loyalty—which include giving credit where its due. It’s also about the delivery of results, progress toward improvement, a capacity to confront reality together, clear expectations, accountability, listening before giving advice, honoring commitments and extending trust to others in order to be trusted.
In contrast, low-trust relationships (Covey actually trademarked both terms, as if trust could be branded!) are characterized by seven problems: redundancy (too much unnecessary duplication of functions or layers of management), bureaucracy, too much internal politics, disengagement, turnover of professionals, the churn of stakeholders and fraud—dishonesty and deception.
These are all signs that good will has broken down, that people don’t want to work together; in nonprofits, they are warnings that the overall goal has gotten lost in the shuffle. Bad relationships are highly distracting.
Covey believes that we all have trust accounts, but that withdrawals are bigger than deposits. If someone breaks that trust, it is difficult, but not impossible, to repair the relationship. In my own experience, some people are naturally trusting, and their default in personal and professional relationships is to trust first, be affirmed when that trust pays off and unpleasantly surprised when it does not. Others are more skeptical and suspicious. It can take a long time to build their trust, but once established, it’s rock solid.
Like Abraham, we’re willing to go through fire and move mountains when we’re in profound relationships of trust. But without trust, we get trapped in suspicion, gossip, petty insults and perceived offenses. It’s hard to keep people engaged, especially because, in Jewish spaces, we expect a higher bar.
My beloved teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, made an important distinction in virtually every one of his books that may be instructive in framing more trusting lay-professional relationships: the difference between contracts and covenants. Contracts are agreements between people or parties that are often situational, time-limited and to achieve goals that reflect self-interest. Ancient contracts often reflected an imbalance of power, where the powerful subjugated the weak for their own ends. In The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Sacks writes,
The use of power is ruled out by the requirement of human dignity. If you and I are linked because, one way or another, I can force you to do what I want, then I have secured my freedom at the cost of yours. I have asserted my humanity by denying yours. Covenant is the attempt to create partnership without dominance or submission.
Rabbi Sacks favored covenants as a way to think of binding commitments among those who work with and care for each other while “respecting the freedom, integrity and difference of each” (The Home We Build Together). Elsewhere he observes, “A covenant is what turns love into law, and law into love” (Radical Then, Radical Now). We may be joined by law, but what binds us to each other is the love that underlies the relationship, and together we “voluntarily undertake to share a fate” (The Home We Build Together).
While it’s true that many boards and their chairs have power because of financial resources and authority vested in them by by-laws, professionals have the education, expertise and experience that should balance this relationship. Sometimes it does; often it doesn’t. A great lay-professional relationship in education is not transactional, an I-It contract of efficiency. It is a covenant of high trust, imbued with the sacred, infused with love, where we undertake to share a vision and a fate.