Leadership and Change from the Inside (and Below)

Good organizations create structures and cultures that embrace change, not just on the macro level, but on the micro and personal level.

by Dr. David B. Starr

Ask an executive to rank what they do that matters most, and they’re likely to tell you, selecting personnel. The right people make everything possible, the wrong people preclude success. Ask a person about their own job history, they’re likely to talk about someone who gave them a chance, someone who mentored them, someone who put them in a position to grow and to succeed.

Mort Mandel hires people based on five criteria: brains, values, work ethic, passion for one’s work purposes, and experience. Of those five he attaches least importance to experience, since a person blessed with the other four qualities likely can learn and thus overcome inexperience.

Mort’s list combines the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle. Plato thought in essential ways about qualities, Aristotle thought in more pragmatic ways about growth and change. Many of us embrace Platonic ways of thinking about ourselves if we like ourselves, “I’m really good at such and such and that makes me happy,” whereas if we want to be good at something but worry that we may lack the aptitude for it we want to think like Aristotle: “with the right teaching or coaching I can become good at something I value.”

My life experience suggests the importance of hanging on tightly to Aristotle’s inherent faith in the possibility of change. We can change, we can help others to change, others can help us to change. That for me defines the core of leadership: creating positive change. Put even more simply: if we want to succeed we need the courage and commitment to assess ourselves and to take risks, from an organizational standpoint the leader needs to create a teaching and mentoring culture that enables such human growth to happen, and the worker needs to take to teaching, needs to confront one’s fear of change, of the new, of the difficult, in order to succeed.

From the Jewish communal perspective one now hears a lot of panicked talk worrying from where the next leaders will come. My answer: they’ll come from good teaching and coaching and mentoring. Sure some of the leaders will be the obvious best and brightest, but many more leaders will be made than found. And that mentoring should occur at all stages, for junior employees and senior ones, for the young and for the not so young. As people live longer the potential for the “middle-aged” to contribute in new ways via their own learning curve should be cultivated.

That’s what one always hears about a good teacher or coach from the hearts and minds of their charges: “They pushed me harder and father than I thought I could ever go. In the process I learned what I could really do.” Leadership in this sense goes way beyond just cherry-picking the best and the brightest, assuming their success and getting out of their way. The hard work lies ahead, the visioning, goal-setting, relationship building, evaluation, directed always toward the twin goals of growth and productivity, which involves a lot of failure as well as success.

I want to share my own perspective on leadership and change, drawn from personal experience, one that I hope can flesh out or in some ways challenge conventional wisdom. The lessons that I draw I put in bold face, we can all make our own conclusions about their implications.

I lost my job three years ago. In the midst of a life-threatening financial crunch, my employer eliminated my senior, high-paying position. When one loses one’s job, one can either take it impersonally or personally. I chose to do both. I understood the context, and I also questioned my own necessity in that current position. That’s observation number one: leaders/executives need to figure out how to put people in a position where they can succeed, if at all possible. The job may have been superfluous, but had I still something to contribute to the institution?

I also soul-searched. I knew, and everyone told me, “David, you’re a great teacher. You’re great with people. Do that. Why aspire to executive leadership when administration’s not your first love and it takes you away from what you enjoy most, believe in, and what you excel in?”

That’s a question that many of us face. We’re young, we start off as learners then teachers, sharing what we loved to learn with others, teaching, working in programs, maybe creating programs. Then comes the moment of truth. Do we want to try to lead as executives? More power, more money, more status, more control (supposedly) beckon to us. It’s an important conversation that we conduct with ourselves and others, and for all sorts of reasons some of us take the plunge, some of us stay more or less where we are. Some of us tolerate risk better, some of us stride through the world with oodles of self-confidence, some of us operate looking over our shoulder, waiting to be found out, feeling insecure and inadequate to the new challenges that come with new, unfamiliar jobs. Some of us get great life-changing chances, some of us somehow never do.

When I lost my job part of me read this happening through the drama of my life. My critics, and the self-critical voice in my head, said, “See, you should have stayed in the classroom, or very close to it. That’s your sweet spot, not the board room. You were bound to fail.” Was that deterministic analysis the right one? Many of us succumb to a negative, Platonic hunch that “I’m good at this, bad at that, and I shouldn’t try to buck that reality.”

I came to my job in 1994, and left in 2010. That’s a long time, though I did “move up” and switch jobs, going from creating and building a program to a vice presidency. But’s that another key observation: people sometimes stay too long. Too many people fear change, avoid confessing to boredom or staleness, and the results can be bad for all concerned. This includes declining morale and performance, and a general depreciation of a culture of intensity, excellence, and innovation.

Leaders need to assess themselves in this regard, and build a culture of trust and accountability and sharing so that people continue to learn, to grow, to challenge themselves. If that fails to happen, stasis likely will set in, adversely affecting mentality and performance.

Such performance in leadership positions can reflect many problems. Going back to Mort Mandel’s taxonomy, was I not smart enough, not endowed with good values, or work ethic, or passion for my work?

Here I think my case tells us something about what Mandel considers the least important of the criteria for leadership, experience. Some people are smart and lucky; they get an opportunity to grow and they make the most of it. Some are lucky and not so smart and they cannot take advantage of opportunities that come their way. Others have the brains but they never get the experience, they never get the chance.

I believe that’s one of the silent implication’s of Yehuda Kurtzer’s analysis. Most Jewish organization fail to mentor their staff, especially when it comes to considering helping staff make major moves from one category of position to another, “higher” executive role. And most staff often avoid seeking out a mentor and requesting help. The mentee needs to take their share of responsibility for making or fail to make happen that sort of constructive relationship happen, as hard as it may be to create such a relationship of respect and affection and trust between two partners who’re not equals in power.

Other realities also make such relationships hard to build. The board fails to apply those sorts of lessons and processes from their own professional contexts, usually the opposite, they either want “strong” executives rather than team or relationship builders, or they want glorified managers who avoid change; executives feel threatened by younger colleagues and decidedly avoid mentoring, overburdened staff cultures render impossible any significant mentoring or professional development time. Many “executive” roles presume expertise that people lack and will struggle to attain on their own. But the mythology of the industry prevents such occupants from seeking the teaching they need. In many cases, whatever mistakes we make and flaws we possess, we all need the insight and courage to seek and receive the sustained mentoring and professional development that we need to change, to get better.

My story might have turned out differently if I’d understood that need earlier. In a sense I “returned” to teaching, but of a new sort, what I always dreamed of, teaching in high school, a space and time that many of us identify with teachers and teaching that touched us in some deep way. I also created something new, a program for the serious study of Zionism and Israel, to change the way the Jewish community thinks about this central aspect of Jewish history and contemporary life. These pursuits make me happy, even as I occasionally wonder about other roads not travelled, other leadership contributions I might have made to the Jewish community. What if I had sought out better coaching? Even the best mentor will not make an average player into Michael Jordan, but it will make one into a different, better player, hopefully the best player one can be.

As a fellow historian I know Yehuda appreciates the role of the particular and the process of change in life. We all change, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtlely. Institutions change. Even as they seem stuck in the same place, as the midrash of the angels either ascending or descending the ladder teaches, they’re probably declining. Good organizations create structures and cultures that embrace change, not just on the macro level, but on the micro and personal level. They assess their personnel, put them in positions to succeed, create opportunities and work with them to grow and to learn new things. That’s how to create in a sense an in-house farm system, to use a baseball metaphor, a structure where the minor leaguer or bench player of today can become a significant player or even leader of tomorrow. Some of us will get there on our own. Many of us won’t, because it’s a poor fit based on Mandel’s hierarchy. But some of us might, with the right coaching and a bit of luck. There’s a lot of talent out there, actually “in there” that gets wasted by all of us, and that needs to change. The Jewish community needs all the talent, and all the mentoring, it can get.

Rabbi Dr. David B. Starr is Founder and Executive Director of Tzion. He is also a teacher and scholar at Gann Academy.