Leadership During Uncertain Times

Rebecca W. Sirbu

Reflect on how you overcame past difficulties. What strengths did you draw on then?

As Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, one of my colleagues, teaches, it is instructive to look at the story of Moses, one of the greatest leaders in our history, for an answer. Moses grows up in the lap of luxury. He is a royal prince living in Pharaoh’s palace. Yet Moses also knows he is a Hebrew. When he witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he acts out of anger and kills the Egyptian. When the matter becomes known, he runs for his life. Place yourself in Moses’ shoes for a moment. What would it be like to lose everything? He runs away from the palace with only the clothes on his back. He loses his family, friends, and royal status. And he loses all of his material possessions and money. The crisis Moses faces is far greater than the one we are facing today. So how does Moses react?

When he arrives in Midian he sits by a well and observes some women trying to water their flock. Shepherds harass the women and push them away from the well. “Moses rose to their defense and he watered their flock.” (Exodus 3:17) The very first thing Moses does after suffering huge personal loss is to help another person. He does not panic. He does not mourn. He looks around and sees how he can be of assistance. Then he gets to work. It is very easy to get swallowed up by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when facing what seem like insurmountable challenges. But strong leaders do not allow themselves to get stuck there.

If you or your school is in crisis, step back for a minute before you react. Take a moment to gauge your own temperature. Ask yourself how you are feeling and write down the emotions you are experiencing. At a gathering of New Jewish Communal Professionals last month many expressed feelings of anger, loss, hopelessness and denial over the current economic crisis. All of their agencies, UJCs, JCCs, and JFSs have experienced budget shortfalls and cuts in staff. Morale is low. Many day schools are experiencing the same situation. All of these emotions are normal, and are to be expected given the sudden shift in our fortunes. It is good to voice them. But do not stop there.

Our tradition is rich in stories of people who lost everything and then continued on. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, falsely accused of rape, and sent to rot in prison. Naomi lost her husband and two sons when she was living in a foreign land and was left bereaved and destitute. Neither of these characters gives in to bad fortune. Joseph trusted his instincts and continued to interpret dreams for the other prisoners, one of whom tells Pharaoh of his ability. Joseph then rises up to second-in-command of the nation. Naomi picks herself up and decides to go back to her homeland. To her surprise, Ruth, her daughter-in-law, decides to come with her. Following Naomi’s directions Ruth finds food for both of them, and through a series of events marries Boaz, the owner of many fields, and is credited with being the foremother of King David.

Joseph, Moses and Naomi all suffer great personal losses. But each of them is able to look inside themselves and connect with his or her core values and mission in this world. Being able to know yourself and act on that knowledge is a true sign of leadership.

All of us have experienced personal hardship in the past. Take a moment to reflect on how you overcame past difficulties. What strengths did you draw on then? What support systems do you have now? Much has been made about President Barack Obama’s cabinet, and how he has put together a team of rivals in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln. Having a large pool of advisors is exactly what you need to conquer adversity, both as an individual and as a school. No one is expecting you to solve all of the problems by yourself. Good leaders know when to draw on the strengths of others. Think about whom you can call on for advice. When you feel anxious or stuck, reach out to someone for help.

Truly take stock of the resources of your own school community. What can parents, teachers, students, and staff add to the conversation? Are there voices you have not been listening to? Who outside of your community do you want to solicit for assistance? You may not have the answers yourself, but you can shape an environment and a process out of which answers will emerge.

The most important point right now is not to get stuck in your fear. We have all read Spencer Johnson’s great book, Who Moved My Cheese? The characters in the book have to adjust to a whole new economic climate. They cannot continue to go to the same sources to get their “cheese,” their sustenance. The have to find new “cheese.” One of the best lessons in the book is from the mice “Sniff” and “Scurry.” Not only do the mice realize that they need to adapt to a new reality, but they are also not afraid of failure. They go into the maze to find new opportunities without fear. Sometimes they fail to find “cheese” and hit dead ends, and sometimes they succeed.

As we adjust to our new economic realities, we are often painfully aware that we might fail—fail to bring in money, fail to keep a school open. And there are times that we might fail. But we are in good company if we do so. Even the greatest leader of all, G-d, sometimes experiences failure. Time and again in the Torah we read stories where humans defy G-d’s orders and expectations. Before the flood, humans are so immoral; G-d recognizes that G-d’s creation is a disaster. G-d, as a creator, as a leader, has failed. Sometimes even when we put forth our best efforts, we do not succeed.

But what happens after the flood? G-d begins again. It is a new day. The sun shines and the colors of the rainbow dance across the land. We too will be able to adjust to our new realities, and begin again. Take this time to assess yourself, assess your school’s resources, bring people together for conversations, and do not be afraid of failure. The only failure of leadership is to not try to find a new path, a new direction for your school to take. Now is the time to think outside the box. Try methods or ideas you have not tried before. Take a few risks. The worst that happens is that you need to try again. You have the tools you need to be a leader during this time. May G-d be with you. ♦

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. She can be reached at [email protected].
Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Nurturing Leadership
Nurturing Leadership
Summer 2009