Charisma and Vulnerability
The leader I want to be opens myself to the conversation, can say “I don’t know,” rather than offering something canned.
By Rabbi Yaakov Green
[This is the fourth 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.]
I have a confession to make: I am comfortable with public speaking. The question that needs asking is does this comfort equate to charisma? If it does, does that kind of charisma make for better leadership?
Like our forefathers, we are all shepherds. Though we are in different places and in different jobs, we are trying to lead and guide. Moshe, a shepherd, our people’s quintessential paradigm of leadership, was perhaps the least charismatic leader possible, within the classic understanding of charisma. He was separated by a veil over his face, living apart from his family and his people, and suffering from a significant speech impediment, yet he was effective in his leadership. David, a shepherd, takes over for a taller, better-looking, more regal king. Yet he wins the people over and is remembered for his charisma and his leadership. What leads to his capacity for leadership? What leads to Moshe’s?
Here again is a more vulnerable confession I wish to share with you. While feeling fine in front of crowds, I have never felt comfortable in shul. Leading in ritual practice has always made me feel uncomfortable; more accurately, it has always petrified me. I think, “I don’t know enough. What if I mess up, mispronounce a word, hit a sour note? I was raised always going to synagogue, but always arriving late. Not fashionably late, just plain very late. Sometimes we would get there for aleinu, sometimes even a bit later. I sat in shul feeling a total fraud, about to be discovered. Of course, I intellectually know now this is not true, but the feeling is still with me everyday, even as I facilitate and lead in shul or in school.
I want to suggest a paradigm shift, a retranslation of what charisma means, arguing that the parts that count are achievable by all. Rather than defend against my flaws, my worries or fears, I believe that my power comes from admitting my shortcomings and mistakes. I want to posit that it is through vulnerability that charisma is created.
I have not come to this understanding easily. As a young adult, I was not able to cry, even at moments of great personal tragedy, whether being dumped by a girlfriend or living through my mother’s battle with cancer and her eventual passing. I had unwittingly shut off that side of me that was most vulnerable. Learning to open that part of me was like feeling the earth move in my chest. I was more awake, more fully present, and therefore more fully powerful because I was being more fully me. But, even as I felt the new power of my presence I asked, “Could I cry in front of my students? Could I admit my true fears or be that vulnerable? Would it be healthy for me, for them, for the relationships?” I worried, not because I might let others in, but because I had let myself out.
I believe this is the nature of real charisma. Yes, charisma requires a certain social acumen, a comfort or desire to be around people. But I think deep charisma is all about vulnerability. People are drawn to it. The biggest part of humanity draws others to it.
The real aspect of personality that makes leadership function is empathy. And empathy requires vulnerability. Without being open, it is hard to create the trust and willingness for those around you to be open. Moses is revered as the teacher, the leader, despite his lack of traditional charisma. In this adjusted mindset, Moses succeeded perhaps because of his willingness to share his lack of grace with public speaking and be true to who he was, with all his shortcomings and all his magnificence. We were drawn to this charisma.
David was the conquering hero, the might of Israel incarnate. And yet it is his most human moments that draw me in, captivate my imagination: His appeal to Nathan admitting his flaws after his ordeal with Batsheva, his friendship with Jonathan, and his poetry – the book of Psalms that captures his raw emotions in ways that we all relate to daily. That was the true might of David, and perhaps it is the true might of Israel incarnate.
As a head of school, I ask myself, more than in any other time in my career, when do I feel most effective as a leader? It is when the person sitting across the table from me – an upset parent, a sad student, a colleague who is going through something at home – can sense me feeling with them and forging a slightly closer connection, or a more-than-slightly closer connection that is the best part of the job of leadership. The leader I want to be opens myself to the conversation, can say “I don’t know,” rather than offering something canned, can risk simply being vulnerable me. That’s the kind of leader to whom I’ve always been drawn.
Charisma is created through vulnerability and a genuine desire to connect with people. It is the heart and soul of leadership. It allows others to want to follow. It allows others to be inspired.
When we accept that our openness is strength and that we have a right to be magnificent leaders and powerful instruments of inspiration, we do not fear letting others see our shortcomings. We cherish the opportunity to cry from the pulpit, to speak about failing forward from experience. To be brave and through our brave sharing with others, the connections we create help us create the vision for our schools and our lives that we cherish so dearly.
Let’s fill the words charm and charisma not with cult of personality, but with genuine caring and a willingness to be human and flawed. When we do so, we awaken a real charisma and a true capacity to lead, and we help bring that out in others.
Rabbi Yaakov Green is head of school at the Epstein Hebrew Academy in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an alumnus of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.