By Lianne Heller
[This is the 10th in a weekly series, “When and how does effective leadership make a true difference?” written by alumni, staff, and faculty of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]
Any leader working to create a unified vision for their organization, one that follows a clear mission and works collaboratively with a single-minded team to achieve success faces many challenges. There are books, YouTube videos, courses, professional coaches, and a multitude of people clamoring to tell leaders how best to achieve this feat. And yet, so many fail. However, when leaders get it right, the rewards go far beyond the tangible results. The satisfaction of a team working in sync, producing a high-quality product by collaboration, is sublime.
I have had a number of leadership roles in my professional life but I have only been strategic and intentional about my leadership practices in the past several years. I owe this important shift to the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute, which taught me to tap into my Torah knowledge to inform my leadership style.
Using a “leading from a Jewish or ‘Torah Inspired’ perspective” approach,” I have experienced profound effects of successful, collaborative leadership. Successes have been big, such as shifting the culture and attitude of our school toward effective communication, and they have involved such equally essential but small issues as asking a maintenance worker to mop the classroom floors.
Supporting the many tactics leaders might employ, I find three foundational shorashim (roots) that will result in highly effective leadership. Each one of them is based on a Jewish principle. I call them the three L’s of leadership: listen, learn, and love.
In the prayer Shema Yisra’el, we are commanded to hear, listen, obey, pay attention, heed and understand – all by that single word, Shema. According to our sources, true listening encompasses all of these behaviors. I have learned that I listen best when I stop the clamor in my own head, silence my self-talk and preconceived notions, and suspend my own inclinations. I can be attuned to another’s words and actions, and note nuance and subtlety with clarity.
This true, active, engaged listening enables one to focus deeply on the speaker so that all the signals communicated, both with and without intention, can be processed. Listening does not only happen through the ears. A multisensory experience, it is the process of collecting, analyzing, and processing data to be used to formulate new relationships, connections, and ideas. It is the beginning of learning.
Learning must be instinctual and constant. Learning stems from curiosity, which leads to the relentless search for answers. In order to learn, one must be willing to take risks, ask questions, and sometimes show one’s ignorance. Arrogance and pride do not have a place in true learning, or in leadership for that matter. In Pirkei Avot, we learn: “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.” Leaders learn from the maintenance worker (who, it turns out, thought he was saving money by using an old and broken mop), teachers, bookkeepers, accountants, children – everyone. For leaders to learn, they need to suspend judgment, find the beauty and value in other people, practice engaged listening, and learn from them.
Judaism espouses Betzelem Elokim; people are made in God’s image. We are taught to love God, and to love our fellow person. When we have listened acutely to someone, we are often given the gift of finding that spark of perfection, of holiness, in him or her. Hold that invaluable treasure close, and in the most difficult of times, take it out and gaze upon it with love and admiration. When we love our coworkers, employees, and teams, we create a safe environment in which risk-taking, creative thinking, and motivation to excel becomes the mainstay of your organization.
With the daily practice of all three L’s, one’s effective leadership will deepen exponentially, creating an environment of true collaboration in which each individual will have the opportunity to shine to their fullest potential.
As the leader of a growing special educational program offering services to a vulnerable population in the Jewish community of the Greater Washington DC area, the three L’s have been critical to mobilizing and motivating my team. We provide high-quality programs that benefit our K-12 students with diverse learning styles and our community’s general-education children who are afforded the opportunity to learn the importance of including others and treating all with respect and dignity. Our vital missions can only be accomplished by a collaborative team of professionals whose effectiveness is fostered and nurtured by the daily practice of the three L’s of leadership, based upon Jewish inspired roots to listen, learn, and love.
Lianne Heller is the director of Sulam, a special education Jewish day school for the inclusion of Jewish students with a wide range of learning styles. Lianne is a graduate of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute, a program run in partnership by the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.