HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Leading Through Crises: A Midrash on Two Lives

by Laurence Scheindlin Issue: Attending the Crisis of Leadership
TOPICS : Leadership

Two of histories greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, have much to teach us about the limits of policies and the surprising value of crises.

My cellphone rings while I am at a meeting off-campus. I see that it is my school’s number and I naturally think, “OK, here’s the crisis du jour.”

The man who saved the Union, set slavery on its path to destruction and who forged the United States into a permanent singular rather than a plural (“The United States” rather than “These”) famously and repeatedly proclaimed, “My policy is to have no policy.” On the surface, this hyperbolically noncommittal statement flies in the face of all good business wisdom, including the counsel of organizations that do such fine work in advising independent schools. We have all been educated to understand the importance of strategic planning, objectives-based management and evaluation, and multiple layers of accountability that rely on explicit and commonly agreed upon plans and principles.

Does the contemporary wisdom not apply to times of crisis? Or is there something to be learned from the behavior of those who have successfully negotiated crises in the interest of something greater that we might apply to our lesser, everyday lives in school?

Just about every school head I know, including the most astute and most planful, talks of living from mini-crisis to mini-crisis. My cellphone rings while I am at a meeting off-campus. I see that it is my school’s number and I naturally think, “OK, here’s the crisis du jour.” But crises, little and great, are inevitable and probably should be considered part of our own strategic planning.

Perhaps we are too afraid of crises. Heads of school confront the sometimes conflicting claims of enrollment, development and education, not to speak of the diversity of parental demands. They are challenged to weigh their convictions against their own legitimate need for employment and economic stability. Observers conclude that principals often underestimate their ability to stretch the limits of their own authority in relation to their boards or their ability to influence change upward.

Stable, “mission-appropriate” lay leadership not given to micromanagement often seems in short supply in Jewish day schools in particular. Boards’ failure to support the head of school and to establish strategic goals combined with the temptation to meddle in day-to-day management bedevil heads and weaken schools. Often the only models to which our Jewish day school lay leaders have been exposed are the dysfunctional, personality-driven non-models of local synagogues. But because lay school leaders tend to graduate with their children, even long-established secular schools engage in aggressive measures to identify and educate leadership.

Perhaps the perceived crisis in Jewish day school lay leadership is as much an opportunity to think of how to use crisis. Over the years, I have been inspired by the dual examples of Lincoln and Yochanan ben Zakkai—leaders who endured crises and who each exemplified a type of leadership I call pragmatic idealism. Guided by an inner GPS locked onto a vastly important goal, each of them acted in surprising ways that appeared to lack policy if not principle, and that provoke debate even today.

Yochanan’s story is famous and thrilling. The traditions tell us that, with the Romans tightening their military grasp on Jerusalem in a military campaign that would end in the destruction of the Temple, the slaughter of many Jews and the resettlement of many others, Yochanan escaped the city, perhaps hidden in a coffin, made his way to the Roman general Vespasian, accurately predicted his ascension to emperor, and asked to be allowed to go to the town of Yavneh, where he would establish an academy and a synagogue and perform the commandments. Vespasian, perhaps charmed by the prophesy, or, more likely, pursuing a typically pragmatic Roman colonial policy, agreed.

With the Temple destroyed, Jewish leadership in disarray and the Sanhedrin out of commission, Jewish religious life should have foundered. Instead, Yochanan made crucial and previously unthinkable ritual changes that enabled Jewish religious life to flourish without the Temple. Continuing the chain of instruction, he also reinforced Judaism’s ethical component and established a new rabbinical authority.

For a school head under the spell of an overarching goal, nearly every one of the hundreds of daily decisions that he or she makes each week presents an opportunity to bring the school closer to the goal.

When Yochanan left Jerusalem, right-wingers and even many fellow Pharisees saw him as a collaborator and appeaser. The Jews were factionalized. Some wanted to fight to the finish, even attacking other Jews. Others, outside of Jerusalem, were relatively untouched by the turmoil of the years leading to the Temple’s destruction. Yochanan would not have been alone, but many undoubtedly saw him as a traitor.

Like Lincoln, Yochanan’s policies must have appeared unpredictable. What he did have was a unified vision: to sustain Jewish settlement and religious life in Israel. His varied and colorful decisions all emerged from a vision that, to quote Jacob Neusner, had “a very practical consequence…: when Jerusalem lay in ruins, he and his disciples found the faith to continue their study” and, with that faith, he developed controversial but functional mechanisms to sustain Jewish life.

Lincoln in his day was castigated by liberals for his slowness in publishing a proclamation of emancipation. Many believed—and some to this day argue—that Lincoln was not originally committed to the destruction of slavery. He brought that perception on himself by his careful attention to the temper of the country. In retrospect, historians can see that he had two visions which he placed in chronological priority: first to save the Union, and then to see slavery dealt a death blow. If saving the Union meant—and it hurts to hear this—doing nothing for the time to mitigate the slavery problem, then so it would be, because he needed to stretch the country without breaking it. If he had gone too quickly, slavery might never have come to an end, and the experiment of American democracy would have been broken apart. When we read his early words today, there is no question of his revulsion at slavery. And later he would declare that both the North and South would “pay fairly for our complicity” in the wrong of slavery, and “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” and this, he said, would be divine justice. When he sensed the needs and temper of the country were right, finally, after seeming procrastination that brought him virulent criticism from supporters and abolitionists, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

To some it seemed that he really had “no policy.” But Lincoln explained “no policy” by reference to his own youthful employment piloting flatboats by oar and pole down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, steering the boat from “point to point—setting the course of the boat no farther” than he could see—but moving inexorably toward his destination. His political destinations were too important for specific political solutions, which were only incidental to his real goal, which rested, as Allen Guelzo put it, on “a coherent intellectual scheme of things which transcended mere policies.”

We cannot compare the agendas in our individual schools to the vastly important goals and decisions Lincoln and ben Zakkai faced. But over the years I have found inspiration in thinking about the pragmatic idealism that guided these two leaders who are essential touchstones for American Jews. Great moralizers whose ideas transcended the realities of the moment, each of them nevertheless was so attentive to those realities that they could confidently use them as stepping stones to a new reality that would embody the transcendent.

The pragmatic idealism Lincoln and ben Zakkai demonstrated has inspired and taught me some lessons that helped me through the crises of school leadership.

Define what motivates you

All of us are Jewish educators because of a set of beliefs. Each of us needs to define what it is specifically that motivates us, be it a Jewish ideal, an instructional philosophy or a social goal. If you don’t feel an idea passionately then either you’ve got the wrong goal or you need to immerse yourself in understanding it until that idea grabs you, takes hold of you, inhabits you. Only then do you have a destination.

Be conscious of what your population can tolerate

Stretch them as far as they can go without the relationship snapping. That requires much communication, teaching and shaping of opinion. Openness and honesty are the foundation of credibility, yet communicating the largest goal too soon may be more than some are ready for. What steps will prepare you and your population for the reality of your larger goal?

Steer from point to point toward your real destination

Policies carefully thought out and crafted in cooperation with lay leadership and staff are essential, but they can also be limiting. Real leaders always are facing crises. But it is not only true, as Rahm Emanuel said, that every crisis presents a possibility (he was thinking strictly on the tactical and political planes). Indeed, for a school head operating under the spell of an overarching goal, nearly every one of the hundreds of daily decisions that he or she makes each week presents an opportunity to bring the school closer to the goal.

Leaders sometimes create crises

In fact, passionately feeling an overarching goal creates its own crises: things simply cannot remain as they are. Leaders are often the ones who see an issue not as a problem, not as a flaw, but as a crisis: this needs to be changed because it represents the wrong value, the wrong ideal. This self-created crisis is my opportunity to create a new reality.

Theoretical as these ideas may sound, they are the principles that have guided me through my own crises as head of school. One of the most dramatic and painful of my long career happened just three years ago. I adopt it as a case study not because it represents a perfect recipe for success—far from it—but to explore the significance of the self-created (though unintended) crisis.

Our commitment to activities-based, conceptual and cooperative learning led us to completely overhaul our middle school math program and to adopt an approach to teaching that, we realized too late, seemed to many of our parents to have come from Mars. Most of our faculty was sold on the idea and they were fully trained and prepared through the previous year and summer.

The September math evening to introduce the parents to our exciting new ideas left us surprised and bruised. Part of the problem was our school’s previous success: What if our already stellar test scores dropped? Where are the dozens of practice problems? Why are the students “teaching themselves”?

We dialogued, explained and interpreted, but the pressure became more intense. The only thing worse than the sleepless nights and worried weekends were the five days of school in between. By November I was seriously thinking of backing off and reverting to our old curriculum at the end of the first semester. We had badly misjudged our population. The letters we had sent in the spring and summer had failed to prepare our parents adequately.

But if we gave in, it would be impossible ever to try again. This episode would be embedded in the school’s institutional memory.

We called and spoke with every parent. We met with the faculty. Already in the middle of the river, could we figure out how to move from point to point? We searched for changes that would not undermine the new approach.

By mid-year we had not extinguished the fire, but it was no longer spreading. We added practice exercises for homework and announced new assessment methods. We were moving from point to point, but now all eyes were on the following school year. A piquant discussion at a board meeting made me realize how quickly even a strategic board, largely focused on the future and fundraising, could itself revert.

I set up an ad-hoc task force of teachers, parents and administrators and I decided that for year two we would not extend the new curriculum (which initially had been instituted for only sixth and seventh grades) to eighth grade as planned. Some on the staff were unhappy with this decision. The task force asked hard questions as it met in year two. The test scores from last year came in: our already high standardized test scores had now blown through the roof. But, the task force wanted to know, how much progress had students made from 5th to 6th grade and from 6th to 7th in previous years? Did this year’s delta really represent anything new? We spent hours analyzing scores. They did.

With the tone shifting still further toward acceptance, I nevertheless, for a variety of tactical reasons, decided for year three to include 8th grade in the new approach but not our lone (and new) 7th grade algebra class. When that one course shifts next year (year four of implementation), it will have taken a full five years to bring about this change.

We will never know what might have happened had we handled the rollout differently. Suppose we had started by creating the task force and developed our curricular plans as part of our explicit strategic plans? Suppose we had conducted math night in the spring before year one? Suppose we had flooded our parents with information about what we would do and why in the year prior? Suppose we had started only with 6th grade?

Perhaps we would have won over our population in advance. Perhaps, given the traditional investment our parents had in math, we would have exposed our goal too openly and jeopardized the possibility of ever implementing it.

I’ll never know. But I do know that many times in those difficult months Lincoln and Yohanan ben Zakkai lived in my mind. And I look back with gratitude and astonishment at the immensity of intellect and spirit that enabled these two men to turn far more complex, profound and dangerous crises toward transcendent purposes.♦

Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, immediate past president of the Schechter Day School Network, will retire this year as headmaster of Sinai Akiba Academy to devote his time to consulting on school leadership and to writing on school administration, emotion and cognition in education, and the teaching of prayer. He can be reached at lasch@sinaiakiba.org.

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Attending the Crisis of Leadership

Day school leadership, especially headship, confronts all kinds of crises: regular school crises, driven by finances or parents; short tenure (averaging 2.5 years); limited pool of qualified applicants; and an impossible workload with little room for family life. These articles analyze aspects of the problem and offer remedies that professionals and lay leaders might implement in their schools.

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