Do We Really Need More Leaders?

By Betsy Stone, Ph.D.

Many years ago, I volunteered for an organization I hoped someday to lead.  I saw it as an opportunity to create lasting change, to bring the organization into a kinder future. I thought I had the skills to achieve this goal. So it came as a painful shock to me when I was not re-nominated as a vice-president. The explanation given me was that I had “no leadership skills.” I still have no idea what this means.

I think of this often at this time of year, when new Boards are nominated and eJP is full of lists of those selected to join competitive leadership training programs.

Leadership is a buzzword in our culture today. Our teens must be presidents of organizations for their participation to count. Colleges are more interested in leadership positions than in breadth of interests. We look for leadership potential in our hiring practices and in our training of volunteers. But is leadership the value we SHOULD focus on?

An imbalanced emphasis on leadership produces organizations that devalue the essential roles of the volunteer. Volunteers are not only leaders – they are thought partners, co-creators and workers. Many of us do not want the responsibility of the position at the top – but are willing and able to do the behind the scenes work. Many of us enjoy volunteer work that is task or time limited. How are these people valued in your organization?

I think this emphasis on leadership creates environments where too many strive to be in charge. These are not environments of cooperation and caring. They are competitions. For a Jewish institution to value leadership over kindness, for example, sets a tone that will repel and exclude those of us who value collaborative work. It creates winners and losers, not change and positive outcomes.

We see this clearly in the story of Moses and Jethro. Moses could not envision ceding any power to others, but could not lead without those who would follow him. Good leaders need satisfied followers. They need to share power and responsibility.

What if we taught our kids, trained our members, that being part of a team matters? That followers are valuable, that working for the good of the whole requires all of us? We would have to change our language, emphasizing the value of the whole as well as the value of the leaders. We would see that the person who delivers food matters as much as the one who creates the food chain; that a good “leadership team” actually follows the needs of the membership, honoring and respecting the collective wisdom of all.

For years, the statement that I had no leadership skills hurt me. I increasingly understand that what was meant was simply that my values did not accord with that leadership team. Their goal was to maintain their values and style. I value something else. I value breadth of expression, hard work, and change. And I believe that good leadership needs more than “leadership skills.” It needs co-creators, people who shake up that status quo, people who will do the work, people who care enough to slog it out. Leadership requires membership, and valuing all voices, ideas and skills.

Betsy Stone, Ph.D. is a psychologist and educator, living in Stamford CT. She teaches on varied topics, including Gen-Xers as parents, Teen Brains, Teaching for Character Development, and Moments of Change. She is a Grinspoon winner, and has taught at HUC-JIR since 2002, where her classes have included Pastoral Counseling, Spiritual Growth over the Lifespan and Liminal Moments in the lives of Families.