Becoming a More Positive Leader

By Bob Leventhal

In his book, The One Minute Manager, Dr. Ken Blanchard suggests we “catch people doing something right and praise it.” (The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams: New and Revised Edition, hardcover, March 24, 2009)

In my experience, most people will follow the example of their leaders. If leaders uphold a value, followers will pay attention to that value. For example, if we want active debate in meetings, leaders need to be able to praise those who give them feedback on their ideas. If you work for a boss that always tends to find something wrong, you will walk into every meeting in a defensive mode.

There is an old joke about a Jewish waiter who asks his Jewish customers at the table, “Was anything ok?” It sounds funny in this context, but it is not funny around a board table. In my work with synagogues, I have often found what I call a “culture of critique.” Congregations often have more people who want to tell us why ideas won’t work than help make new ideas a success. These members are usually well intended. They take their oversite role seriously. Unfortunately, when they focus only on the negative (e.g. “We tried that before” or “We can’t do that, it won’t work”), there are unintended consequences. I once warned my eight-year-old son, “Whatever you do, don’t drop those pancakes.” The pancakes and syrup were soon on the floor. By focusing on the negative, all I did was raise his anxiety.

Bridget Grenville-Cleave writes in her article, The Science of Happiness, about popular Harvard Professor, Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, who argues that individuals who are appreciative are happier. Shahar says that it matters what questions you ask. If you always ask about what went wrong, it impacts your attitude.

I have found that resilient people change the narrative from feeling like a victim to finding positive ways to learn from their experience. They turn lemons into lemonade. Going through life praising what we appreciate is a good way to live. What is true for individuals is also true for how congregational leadership lives.

The negative leader is anxious. When a new initiative falls short, they may flash back to how things always go wrong. They say, “Here we go again.” The optimist, on the other hand, thinks stumbles are temporary setback, just part of life. They are optimistic that they can emerge from difficulties with new energy and hope.

Below are some tips to becoming a more positive congregational leader.

1. Give Positive Feedback

  • Praise first – Try to give rabbis and staff three compliments for every critique. Always start with what is working well. This creates a spirit of gratitude which changes your outlook and that of the other person.
  • Be positive with yourself – Write down one thing that you are grateful for before going to bed each night. Make it part of your bedtime ritual and routine.
  • Find out what is working well – Start asking board members what is working well with your meetings. Only later, ask what could be even better.

2. Express an Attitude of Gratitude

  • Foster a sense of serenity and equanimity – Don’t obsess over all the negative trends (intermarriage, next generation not joining, people who don’t want to pay). You have little control over these. Keep doing positive things that make people want to join you.
  • Extrovert your positive attitude – Nobody wants to join your congregation to embrace your problems. We know that people need to be more resilient. Show them the resilience you have developed as an individual and as a community.
  • Share stories of successful community engagement – Focus on ways in which your congregation is building community and helping to create meaningful and purposeful lives. Tell those stories from the bima and through sermons and blogs. Post on your website and share in your meetings.

3. Build on Strengths

  • Take the USCJ Thriving Congregations Assessment – Look for what is thriving now and focus on how you could build on your strengths.
  • Welcome short testimonials of appreciation – Invite people to share 1-2 minute stories about how the synagogue has helped them share their joys and supported them in times of challenge.

4. Build Positive Collaborative Teamwork

  • Help staff build on personal strengths and practice being supportive of others – Have lay leaders and staff teams do the following exercise. It may seem simple but it can have a profound impact.

Four Step Collaboration Exercise: Go through the 4 steps from left to right.

Person 1. Share strength you have Note how you could build on it Disclose the support you need Ask your colleagues how they might help
Sue Writing Put blogs on web More time; Some feedback on writing ideas Let’s brainstorm some ideas

5. Bring all of this wisdom to your school and youth programs – Help find youth doing great things and praise them. Ask how you can support their next steps.

A Final Positive Word

Focusing on the positive creates more energy to do the work at hand. It’s a very Jewish idea: The cup is more than half full. Start by finding things that are working well and praising them so you can move to a sense of abundance and gratitude as opposed to one of scarcity and loss. Lift up what you are grateful for. Build on congregational strengths. Invite lay leaders and staff to build on their strengths and invite teammates to support each other. By doing these things, you will create new positive habits. The reward? You will become a more positive leader and bring out the best in your congregational leadership.

Robert Leventhal is USCJ Kehilla Leadership Specialist.