Agile and Adaptive Leadership

Judy Groner and David Altman

The task of Jewish educators is to unleash the leadership talent of all members of the tribe.

The message is clear: as Jews, we assume that any member of the tribe is capable of leadership. From our perspective, the fact is that at certain times and in certain contexts, all members of the tribe are leaders. The task of Jewish educators is to unleash the leadership talent of all members of the tribe. Thomas Friedman has noted that our world has become increasingly flat and interdependent. As a result, hierarchical models of leadership in which there are clearly identified “leaders” and “followers” are being supplemented with models that emphasize collaboration and shared responsibility. In light of this shift, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) argues that leadership is a process by which people with shared work create direction (vision, goals), alignment (communication, coordination, collaboration), and commitment (pursuit of collection vs. individual goals).

Hillel taught, “Do not withdraw from the community…do not judge your fellow human being until you stand in his situation.” Judaism has always been rooted in vibrant community life. It is not coincidental that our rabbis require a minyan for prayer. One person may be the shaliach tzibbur, but each of the other nine must be present in order for key tefillot to be recited. Shared responsibility thus leads to robust community culture.

Models of positive Jewish leadership abound in the daily rhythm of Jewish day schools. Day schools possess a unique advantage in teaching leadership. Learning about and engaging in leadership involves a creative tension between dependence, independence and interdependence. Our students spend a majority of each day in school in a student chevra that does not include their parents. Separation from parents allows schools to teach children to develop as independent thinkers and problem solvers. School life also promotes interdependent connections between students, teachers, administrators, lay volunteers and at times, parents.

Jewish history is riddled with poignant stories of heroic leadership: Moshe Rabbeinu guiding Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt; Ben-Gurion heading a fledging Jewish state; and Elie Wiesel inspiring an entire generation to speak out for the rights of Soviet Jewry. We experience smaller, but no less meaningful, examples of leadership in the daily routines of school life. Today, we watched a three year old pre-school student shake off his sister’s hand as he walked through the school’s front door and confidently find his own way to class. Last week, the eighth grade class challenged our faculty to a volleyball match in order to raise funds for their Israel trip. The P.E. teacher organized the staff line-up while students planned and executed their own strategy for the five game series. One student became frustrated and stomped off to the bleachers. Alerted to her discontent, her teammates cajoled her back into the game.

In school, students are exposed to imperfect Jewish leadership, accompanied by examples from Biblical times to modern Israeli politics. Paradoxically, understanding that leaders have limitations allows children to see leaders as accessible and the journey of leadership as being student-like as it involves lifelong learning. With today’s emphasis on both left-brain (analytical) and right brain (creative) components, effective leadership involves agility across diverse domains of behavior. While we have acquired a great deal of anecdotal knowledge about nurturing Jewish leadership, the only thing that we know for certain is that everything we thought we knew is constantly in transition. As educators and lay leaders, we are charged with the responsibility of nurturing tomorrow’s leadership and preparing our students for a future we cannot even visualize. Ask your faculty to sit with you and watch the latest version of the YouTube “Did You Know?” It is a sobering reminder that we must prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist, using expertise that will soon be outdated to solve problems for which technology is not yet invented. While sobering, it is also quite motivating to the educator who has an eye toward innovative education and outcomes beyond grades and test scores.

So how does the Jewish educator develop the next generation of leaders who will improve the human condition? From numerous studies of the key events in a leader’s development, we know that

  • About 45% of development is associated with challenging assignments (e.g., first time supervisory jobs, start-from-scratch assignments, fix-it jobs, tough negotiations, moves between line and administrative jobs, increases in scope of responsibility, career shifts, etc.).
  • About 25% of development is a function of good (and it turns out, poor) relationships with other people (e.g., role models, mentors, coaches).
  • About 25% is attributed to experiencing hardships (e.g., business failures and mistakes, demotions or missed promotions, subordinate performance problems, downsizing experiences, significant conflicts at work, discrimination).
  • And about 5% was due to coursework (e.g., workshops, conferences).
  • For some leaders, personal life events, positive and negative, were also found to have an effect on development.

The implications are clear: developing successful students, teachers and administrators will require much more than lecturing students in classrooms or sending educators to interesting workshops and conferences. We must think more creatively about how to nurture the development of Jewish leaders through on-the-job experiences, experiential exercises and through interactions with others. Development requires providing people opportunities to learn from their work rather than simply taking them away from their work to learn.

CCL has studied the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful leaders. Taken together, these studies have found successful leaders establish strong relationships with others; hire, build, and successfully lead teams; have outstanding track records of individual performance; and can adapt during periods of change and transition. CCL has also conducted numerous studies of leaders who were on track (or the fast track) for a successful career and then “derailed” (e.g., were fired, demoted, or reached a career plateau). Those who derailed were more likely than those who did not to have problems with interpersonal relationships, fail to hire, build, and lead a team, fail to meet business objectives, were unable or unwilling to change or adapt, and lacked a broad functional orientation. The two most important derailment factors, interpersonal relationships and teamwork, have little to do with the leaders’ technical skills. When leaders derail, it’s rare that the cause is because they cannot handle the technical or substantive dimensions of the job.

Our students will require Tony Wagner’s survival skills (The Global Achievement Gap) in order to effect change. In particular, fresh challenges necessitate a high level of success at #4: agility and adaptability. CCL President John Ryan mentions learning agility as well in a recent article in Business Week. Referring to Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger’s book The Leadership Machine, he flags three crucial elements of learning agility: a “rock-solid commitment” to learning, the courage to put oneself in challenging situations and a commitment to seeking and accepting performance feedback.

In order to lead the next generation, our students will understand that technology is a tool, not a toy. The Internet permits this generation to easily access information that formerly involved a trip to the library reference room, hauling piles of heavy books from the narrow stacks, or peering through microfiche documents to read primary sources. The challenge of access has been replaced by the challenge of analysis—teaching about legitimate sources, truth in journalism, bias and opinion.

Most Jewish day schools’ mission statements, like ours, include the words “future Jewish leaders.” Unfortunately, creating a formula to turn out graduates who are leaders is not simple. Discussions with our faculty indicate that defining good leadership is not easy. We know it when we see it, but the criteria are elusive. We do recognize, however, that leaders must have competency in areas that are not necessarily academic. They require excellent social skills, self-awareness and personal restraint. Daniel Goleman calls this “emotional intelligence,” noting that one must be able to lead oneself in order to lead others. Are we able nurture leadership qualities in every child? To do so, we need to start with the premise that leaders are made, not just born; that the ability to lead is not ingrained, but must be nurtured.

As our ancestors said, Tzei ulmad, go and learn. Let’s start with V’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha, Love your friend as yourself. Jewish day schools are a step ahead in leadership training in that we already emphasize strong values and morality. We teach tolerance and then respect of classmates who see/understand/learn differently. Shammai taught, “Say little, do much.” Talking about these concepts is important, but modeling effective communication through our own behavior speaks volumes. We begin with good listening, which is another one of Tony Wagner’s seven survival skills. An effective way to incorporate these skills is to start each day (post-tefillah, if you have it) with aseifat boker, a morning meeting. Ruth Sidney Charney’s work (Teaching Children to Care) describes several ways to run a productive morning meeting. Even the youngest pre-school students are able to learn the skill of greeting one another by name, shaking hands, looking at the student next to him/her in the eye.

What are some other ways to nurture leadership in your school?

  1. Build leadership into the totality of your school’s culture. Map it as part of the school social curriculum. This will transform your program from “good to great!”
  2. Emphasize strong character and positive values through use of Ruth Sidney Charney’s Responsive Classroom approach, beginning in pre-school.
  3. Integrate “habits of mind” (Costa and Kallik) into your curriculum.
  4. Develop an “independence strand.” Incorporate into your curriculum matrix leadership skills students need at each level in order to progress to the next one.
  5. Don’t forget to contemplate the ways our students learn and communicate today. Utilize Facebook, blogging, Skype and podcasts to focus on digital interconnectivity. Today’s students will need leadership skills for a global world.

In a conversation about leadership lessons with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in Harvard Business Review (April 2009), Diane Couto reports that Abraham Lincoln “took responsibility for what he did, and he shared responsibility for the mistakes of others, and so people became very loyal to him.” Our hope is that those of us who are passionate about Jewish day school education work together to refine a compelling vision for teaching the Jewish leaders of the next generation. ♦

David Altman is Executive Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Product Development at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a not-for-profit research and educational institution with headquarters in Greensboro, NC, and President of the B’nai Shalom Day School Board of Trustees. He can be reached at [email protected].
Judy Groner is Head of School at B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, NC. She can be reached at [email protected].
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HaYidion Nurturing Leadership
Nurturing Leadership
Summer 2009