Jews have been debating leadership since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Now, as established institutions begin to make room for innovative startups in Jewish life, discussions of leadership become more complicated and confusing, starting with what the word itself means.
A leader is sometimes thought of as anyone who is highly placed in an organization. A major donor may be called a “lay leader,” suggesting that leadership amounts to having power or influence. A consulting firm that focuses on nonprofits, The Bridgespan Group, issued a report called “The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit,” which reported that nonprofits “will need to attract and develop some 640,000 new senior managers” over the next decade. They use “leader” to mean “manager.” A news story about the ROI Summit reported, “Young Jewish leaders from 29 countries will meet in Ramat Gan as part ROI Global Summit for Young Innovators.” That writer sees leadership as signifying innovation, especially among young people.
There is some truth to all of these notions, but they obscure the qualities that distinguish leadership from other kinds of responsibility. One of my teachers at Harvard Business School, Prof. Abraham Zaleznik, wrote a pathbreaking article in 1977 entitled “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”. His thesis, which has become widely adopted, is that management is a “practical effort to direct affairs,” emphasizing rationality, process, and control. Leaders, on the other hand, seek change in order “to profoundly alter human, economic, and political relationships.” One of our most valuable writers on Jewish communal leadership, Erica Brown, has written along similar lines that “strong personal leadership is often characterized by originality, drive, stubborn perseverance, charisma, dominance, impatience, and single-mindedness. These qualities are crucial in the risk taking that leadership so often involves.”
Jewish communal organizations in an earlier era mostly discouraged that kind of risk-taking. They placed a great premium on building durable organizational structures and fostering near-unanimous consensus – managerial objectives that are often disincentives to true leadership. Emerging Jewish innovators, on the other hand, have originality and perseverance in abundance. Nonprofit startups take big risks when they enter the marketplace, investing time and money to offer new services that weren’t available before. Focused projects, which may or may not demand a high degree of managerial skill, thrive on the single-minded dedication of their often visionary founders.
This has led to the perception that the innovators are inherently leaders in a new movement, replacing the old models with new paradigms. The recent wave of innovation is certainly a vital development in the Jewish community. And helping these Jewish entrepreneurs acquire the managerial tools they need, particularly as they move from the start-up phase to sustainability, is essential to sustain their contribution to Jewish life.
From a structural perspective, however, they have simply added independent, entrepreneurial elements to Jewish communal life that complement the established, centralized bureaucracies. That’s not revolutionary: Jews have been entrepreneurs for a long time. More importantly, entrepreneurship doesn’t automatically produce leadership.
In fact, though it may seem counterintuitive, a successful startup intensifies managerial values, not leadership skills. “Managers see themselves as conservators and regulators of an existing order of affairs with which they personally identify and from which they gain rewards,” wrote Prof. Zaleznik. That could describe the priorities of any CEO, whether at a successful Jewish startup or a big-city Federation. “Leaders,” on the other hand, “are like artists and other gifted people,” Prof. Zaleznik observed. But “leadership inevitably requires using power to influence the thoughts and actions of other people.” As the old saying goes, a leader is someone who has followers. A visionary who starts a new nonprofit is not a leader, at least not yet. And gaining market share is not the same as having followers.
It would be reassuring to think that creative new ideas and dynamic nonprofits will transform Jewish life. They have already enriched the marketplace with exciting new ways of expressing Jewish identity, and that is an extraordinary contribution. But in order “to profoundly alter human, economic, and political relationships,” we need true leadership.
That is the opposite of celebrating new developments and reinforcing an emerging consensus. Leaders resist institutional inertia, challenge fashionable ideas, question the trends of the moment, articulate new visions, and rally a broad following so that true transformation is possible. We won’t recognize the leaders among us if we confuse leadership with management or entrepreneurship or innovation.
Bob Goldfarb, a Harvard Business School graduate, is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. A regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, he lives in Jerusalem and can be contacted at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.