Leadership and Change: Continuing the Conversation

Good leaders can be innovative at any age; we should be much more concerned with overlong tenures that suppress the meaningful advancement of subordinates, or of systems that fail to develop new talent and then wonder why there is no pipeline.

by Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer

Leadership is messy work. The outpouring of recent writing on the issue of leadership succession is indeed messy, and this is probably a good thing. If we are anxious about the future of Jewish organizational life, we’d best prepare for that future by making space in the public conversation for new voices and radical ideas, even if it makes this moment in Jewish history feel a little unstable.

This instability is exacerbated by two major fears: that a call for change is an indictment of all ‘mainstream’ or ‘legacy’ organizations, in which ‘innovative’ organizations are thought to be superior; and that a call for new voices is the launching of an age war. Neither of these conclusions are inevitable nor useful, and I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify my own views on these issues.

In my original piece, I described the reality of the changing nature of Jewish life and patterns of affiliation, and I pointed to “the changing trends of Jewish affiliation that are relocating Jewish identity outside of these normative frameworks.” In other words, since the world is changing and Jews are behaving differently than they used to, the major organizations that once benefited from an intrinsic loyalty of their membership base are going to necessarily have to work differently to maintain that level of support; and in many cases, their essential organizing principles will simply not be able to continue in the face of the changing nature of Jewish life. Some organizations will have to change how they operate, and some should probably go out of business. This does not mean that all such mainstream organizations are incapable of adaptation and change. Social commentary on a changing landscape is neither an indictment of current realities nor a prophesy of imminent demise. One of the largest Federations in North America raised a record amount of money in this past campaign, signaling its ongoing ability to stay relevant to an increasing donor base while providing essential, noble services to broad sectors of Jewish life – to provide just one example. In fact, I would posit that the leaders of such ‘legacy’ organizations who are thriving in this climate would corroborate my core thesis: their strength is connected to their staying constantly attuned to the trends that reflect the changing nature of Jewish life and affiliation, and their ability to innovate accordingly.

Moreover, my call for a reorganization of the communal landscape is not meant to canonize the so-called “innovation sector” that has arisen in the past decade, or to value new or small organizations over the major organizations who defined Jewish life throughout the 20th century. The essential, unglamorous social services provided by Federations for decades, and the political maneuvering in the public and private spheres by other major national organizations for the sake of Jewish influence in America and for Israel’s security, remain critical to the thriving of American Jewish life. The instinct to see a call for innovation as a threat to the establishment misses the core meaning of the phrase “Jewish innovation,” which has always linked the past to the present. I have argued explicitly in my book that the key to the Jewish future is a more rigorous understanding and embrace of the Jewish past. In order to craft new realities for Jewish life, we have to be grateful for and mindful of everything we are changing.

On the issue of age and leadership, here too we run the risk of distraction. Good leaders can be innovative at any age; we should be much more concerned with overlong tenures that suppress the meaningful advancement of subordinates, or of systems that fail to develop new talent and then wonder why there is no pipeline. In this respect, some recent history is instructive and surprising. Many current leaders of major Jewish organizations – take David Harris, Malcolm Hoenlein, and Abe Foxman – began their current jobs when they were in their early 40s; in the case of these examples, none had major executive and/or fundraising experience. No doubt their status as ‘outsiders’ or upstarts actually served their organizations extremely well for a long time, and was a key feature of how they grew their organizations to today’s prominence. The panic about the absence of a talent pipeline is therefore ironic: it misunderstands what leadership is, and what it means to invest in it. By seeking only successors who look a certain way and have already attained ‘gravitas’, as defined in one particular way; or by emphasizing certain accomplishments that only a seasoned executive could have in their background, these organizations and their leaders are reinforcing their own problematic ageism.

I believe there is already great talent in the system (or outside of it yet still recruitable), but that Jewish organizations and boards will have to get out of their own way in order to identify it. Many successful organizations likely handed over the keys to people now seen as visionary leaders when those leaders were far greener than anyone remembers. The combination of trust in a mission, patience to teach and mentor, the tolerance of mistakes, and the belief in the work are much greater predictors of eventual success than the perfectly aligned CV of the idealized candidate. I am genuinely not sure that Jewish organizations are aware of the problematic litmus tests that they place before current and potential leaders in the Jewish community that inhibit advancement and prevent search committees from taking meaningful and necessary risks.

I also believe that the pace of change must be accelerated, even if this disrupts the natural order. Two realities suggest that a slow and methodical process is a mistake: first, many extraordinary young Jewish leaders have already stopped waiting around in a pipeline, and moved on to found their own organizations; second, the phenomena we are talking about with respect to the changing dynamics of Jewish life are moving much faster than simply the filling and replacing of jobs. Put differently, you can move very methodically and slowly and ultimately design an ideal process, only to discover that the Jewish community you are hoping your prospective leader will lead has changed even more since you launched your committee structure.

Most importantly, the critique of “analysis” as “paralysis” – that discussing this issue more does little to actually solve the problem – is tragically flawed. Our constant communal insistence on prescriptive thinking as more important than diagnostic thinking lies at the heart of contemporary Judaism’s most central challenges. We Jews sometimes still operate collectively like a small organization looking for quick technical fixes – convinced that our product and brands will survive whatever the market throws our way. It is hard for me to understand how – if there is a real talent pipeline problem – we can afford to avoid thinking about systemic problems even as we look for technical solutions. No one really knows the answer as to why this alleged problem persists: is the problem here a lack of belief by the next generation in the importance of this work, a lack of interest in jobs designed for 1950s-era work-life culture, a fear of organizational change, an unwillingness to take seriously the talent already in the system, or merely the need for better executive recruitment efforts. The resistance to adaptive thinking suggests a basic analogy to the problematics inherent in all of these panicked executive searches: we look to staff open positions and wonder why no one surfaces, and never ask what is it about us – or these jobs – that makes them so undesirable. I certainly hope this resistance to adaptive thinking and public reflection does not become endemic to a system that desperately needs both.

Nevertheless, as important this public conversation is even as it remains theoretical, I want to suggest some of my own technical suggestions and practical ideas for how to improve this field and address those concerned about Jewish organizational sustainability, with three practical ideas:

First, every Jewish organization should be held to our own version of the “Rooney Rule:” The National Football League put a regulation in place in 2003 requiring football clubs to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching vacancies. The league’s hypothesis was that hiring managers often do not see the talent they should, with the corollary that many of the most talented candidates for open positions never step foot in the door, assuming the position is closed to them. The number of minority head coaches jumped from 6% to 22% since the implementation of the rule, and the talent pool in the NFL yawned open. What if Jewish organizations were required to bring at least one woman and at least one candidate under the age of 35 in the pool of the five finalists to their hiring committees for senior roles? This begins as tokenism, but would likely end with us finally seeing the diversity of the candidate pool, and opening us up to the possibilities of what new leadership could look like.

Second, Jewish organizations should make budgets available for executive coaching and professional mentoring built in to the contractual expectations of any new executive hire. Let’s switch the culture from making this investment something a new employee would negotiate for, to an expectation that a board would have of its new people. Perhaps hiring committees and boards would be more comfortable taking risks if they knew there was a safety net in the ramp-up, and more patient in the process of taking on new talent since they knew that their executive was committed to learning and growing. Perhaps our growing pool of retiring baby-boomer CEOs could be best put to work as mentors in the system. This would enable us to learn from their tremendous passion and wisdom, while allowing new faces to take over the responsibilities – and the limelight – that they have enjoyed for so long. The philanthropists who make Jewish life possible surely know from their businesses that success requires the readiness to make mistakes and then to learn from them. This attitude – applied to rethinking the nature of our organizations, to the question of who we hire, and to making us feel confident in their leadership – will help us enormously as we move forward.

And finally, let’s revisit again the question of what is really needed in the realm of leadership development programming. We are looking into this at the Hartman Institute, and hoping to create a significant platform to invite emerging professional and volunteer leaders associated with Jewish organizations – large or small – to a rigorous seminar on Jewish ideas, values, and the intangible qualities of Jewish leadership – to provide a context for growth and collaboration across Jewish organizations that has been missing for a long time, especially since the demise of PLP in 2009. There are existing and commendable efforts at leadership development in Jewish life – most especially through the Wexner Foundation, which has already reshaped Jewish leadership through its flagship programs – but more efforts are needed, for which we are seeking partnership. As with this whole major question of the future of Jewish life and who will lead it, the only way forward is not with anxiety but with appreciative inquiry: What leaders do we currently have? What could be possible in Jewish life under their leadership? And what must we do as a field to strengthen and support them as they move our community forward to the next generations?

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.