Attention, Group Leaders: Guide by Virtues and Values

by David Teutsch

Oy, what a tough year to be a Jewish leader! Stock-market losses wreaked havoc with endowments and budgets, and fundraising challenges skyrocketed. Organizations directly or indirectly invested with Bernard Madoff faced even greater losses. Then came firings and slashing of programs, and news of rabbis involved in money-laundering and the selling of human organs. Under such conditions, what could leaders do?

What it means to be a leader is not to hold office or sit on a board; you are only a leader when you lead. And you can lead from anyplace in the organization. That simple truth is denied every time someone uses the term “leader” as a euphemism for “giver” or “board member.”

To be a Jewish leader (as opposed to just a leader in a Jewish organization or a leader who just so happens to be Jewish) is to act like a mensch – to guide by Jewish virtues and values, including integrity, courage, humility, gentleness and empathy. In times like these, congregational and organizational leaders – whether staff or volunteer – should follow the same basic guidelines:

  • Be clear about your mission, goals and values. If there are disagreements or unclear points, ensure discussion and resolution of them. You can’t tell if you’re making progress if you don’t know where you’re going.
  • Educate yourself. Not all organizations make this easy. But if you are in a position of responsibility, you have an obligation to understand how the organization works, what is functioning well, what needs fixing, how its assets are invested and what is going on in the environment where the organization does its work. Learn the precise vocabulary of Jewish principles, concepts and values that will allow you to speak clearly about why things matter (100 words will change everything; if you contact me, I’ll send you an annotated list of Jewish values).
  • Stand up for what’s right. If leaders of your organization are involved in self-dealing – or if employees, members, clients or volunteers are not being treated well, or the organization is not living up to its vision and values, or it is functioning inefficiently – you have an obligation to insist that things improve. It’s easier if you “go along to get along,” but that is a recipe for personal moral weakness and organizational mediocrity. A woman as a last resort threatened an organization with a lawsuit in order to force action to stop ongoing sexual harassment by its top professional. In doing so, she set a real example. Bring insight and not anger, light and not heat to the task of making things better.
  • Avoid name-calling, gossip and backbiting. So often, we hear terms like “self-hating” or “overbearing,” or hear private criticisms of persons, processes or programs that are not expressed to decision-makers, or in group settings or meetings where something can be done about it. Not only do we not fix problems this way, we break down the trust that sustains communal commitment.
  • Build leadership within the organization.There are several critical parts to this: leadership orientation and training; individual cultivation of leaders at each stage of their development; and honest feedback about their efforts. Remember that if constructive criticism is to be absorbed, you must offer praise 10 times the amount of the criticism.
  • Leaders are ambassadors. Tell others why you care about the organization or congregation where you lead. Explain what it does and how. Talk about ways that other people can get involved. Spread the good word. When there are problems, tell the people who can fix them. When there are successes, tell the world.
  • Lead by example. It’s a powerful statement when a congregation’s president regularly participates in adult Jewish learning. I admired the action of the top professionals in one organization who voluntarily took larger salary cuts so that the employees paid the least would not have to struggle with yet more meager salaries.

If everyone acted like you do, would the organization be a success? Would it help to build relationships and community? Would the Jewish community’s commitments to Jewish learning, spirituality and social justice be what you would like them to be? Would there be enough self-sacrifice and empathy?

At this turning of the year, we assess ourselves as individuals, as members of organizations and as Jewish leaders. How are we doing? Are we bearing our fair share of leadership responsibilities? As the New Year begins, we’re provided with a fresh page in the proverbial Book of Life, pristine and white, on which to inscribe our deeds. Will we lead with energy in our communities? Will we exemplify responsibility and integrity for our families? Will each of us dedicate ourselves to acting like a mensch?

One of the strengths of the Jewish community is how many volunteers participate in Jewish communal life. Each of us who do so will have many opportunities to lead. May our actions make us worthy of that sacred trust.

Rabbi David Teutsch, is the Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization and director of the Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He is also the author of a new book, Making a Difference: Jewish Leadership and Not-for-Profit Management.