Frameworks for you

How to lead in times of terror

In Short

From how to find the words to address your team to how to approach "productive disequilibrium," here are some ideas to keep in mind as leaders during challenging times.

At Yeshivat Maharat, our purpose is to prepare women to be Jewish spiritual leaders, the kinds of people who have the knowledge, moral courage and emotional fortitude to guide, inspire, agitate and hold others. 

This week, our students turned to us with broken hearts and red eyes. 

Many of our students live in Israel. Many have husbands, sons, cousins, family members and dear friends, who are fighting for their lives. All of them are terrified, horrified and in shock; and all of them, though they are rabbinical students and not-yet-ordained rabbis, are, to some extent, offering support to others who are hoping that they will know what to say, what to do. 

What should we say? What should we do?

The first step we took was to pause and pivot. It was clear that we could not teach the classes we had planned to teach on the topics of leadership and giving sermons; it was also clear that these students needed us to teach and guide them on these topics. And so, we put together a class on leadership in times of terror. We are sharing the following concepts from the class in the hope that it might offer guidance to others who are struggling to hold and support their communities even as they themselves are brokenhearted and grappling with hopelessness.

Providing authority and solving technical challenges are acts of leadership in times of crisis

We often confuse leadership, an activity that represents guiding people through change processes, with authority, a position of power in a system. Authority figures primarily preserve the status quo; leadership practitioners strive to change it. At Yeshivat Maharat, we are acutely aware that our students’ leadership work involves challenging their own community’s authority figures and striving to change the status quo. And yet, in times of terror and crisis, the work of leadership involves creating stability.

Authority figures provide protection, direction and order. In times of crisis, it is crucial to create an environment in which people feel more safe, to guide them about what to do next, and to help create structure in the face of chaos. Leadership during these times (as opposed to “normal” circumstances) does not involve systemic thinking or analysis, nor trying to understand the root causes and complexities of an issue. Instead, leadership involves guiding people towards solving specific, technical, manageable challenges. People need to act, and leaders must offer guidance about concrete things people can do to help, even a little bit.

Keep people in the productive zone of disequilibrium

In a time of crisis, people are pushed beyond their limits of tolerance. In day-to-day life, people are often mired in the status quo, and unable to imagine anything different. In normal circumstances, leadership involves pushing people out of their comfort zones, challenging them towards a “productive zone of disequilibrium.” In times of crisis and terror, leadership involves loosening the paralytic grip of fear — calming people and reducing stress, but not so much that they avoid or ignore the reality around them. Instead of being agitated towards the productive zone of disequilibrium, people need their panic to be alleviated; at the same time, they also need to be kept in a space in which they feel pain and witness and name the evil and horror. This means that people striving to exert leadership need both to name the reality and face the terror, while also holding hope and vision for a better reality.

Know what to say to your people in times of crisis

How do you provide authority — the protection, direction and order — and identify the technical challenges people can tackle effectively during a time of crisis? How do you navigate people towards the productive zone of disequilibrium in a time of crisis? 

You need to gather your community and talk to them, ideally in person if possible.

There is a kind of formula for what people need to hear during times of crisis and terror. President Joe Biden’s phenomenal speech in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Israel utilized this framework, so we will draw upon his words to illustrate its effectiveness. 

  1. What do you want your audience to know and think? Name the truth, the facts, the reality. This is what Biden did at the beginning of his speech. In times of crisis, people look to their leaders for information, and he did not equivocate. Less than a page into the speech, he stated plainly: “This is terrorism.”
  1. What do you want your audience to feel? It is crucial to prevent people from becoming numb. They need to feel the pain, breathe into the pain. Acknowledge that there may be a range of emotions that the audience will feel. Share your own heartbreak as a model for how others should react. The president included his own sense of devastation when he said: “A lot of us know how it feels. It leaves a black hole in your chest when you lose family, feeling like you’re being sucked in. The anger, the pain, the sense of hopelessness.” 
  1. What do you want your audience to do? What are the specific, concrete things they can do that will make a difference? Remember, what they do will be helpful as much to themselves as to anyone they’re trying to help. State with clarity what you too are contributing, just as Biden did when he said: “We’re also taking steps at home. In cities across the United States of America, police departments have stepped up security around centers for — of Jewish life.”
  1. How can your audience keep moving forward? Incorporating a message of hope is essential to inspiring people to put one foot in front of the other. As devastating and dire as the news is, we must carry-on, and holding even a sliver of hope helps to keep us motivated. In her book Hope Will Find You, Rabbi Naomi Levy eloquently says: “Hope is not passive. It’s about stepping inside life instead of waiting on the sidelines.”

Ease Your Own Suffering

Finally, it is impossible to provide leadership to others if you are not caring for yourself. Colin Campbell, the author of Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose, reminds us how crucial it is to be kind to ourselves and to reduce our own suffering. In their seminal work The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ron Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky offer guidance as to how:

  1. Create a sanctuary for yourself. Pick a place you can go to be re-invigorated and visit it regularly, whether it is a swimming pool, the forest, a favorite cafe or a library. Also visualize and meditate on that place, so you can go there in your mind and calm yourself during difficult times. 
  1. Forge daily practices. Whether it is prayer, meditation, exercise or tea, ensure that you have specific routines that offer you solace and comfort and stability.
  1. Anchor yourself in confidants, and purpose. Surround yourself with people who love and care about you, and be in regular dialogue with them. Remember why you are doing what you do. Speak your purpose to yourself and to others: it will fortify you.

We hope these frameworks can offer you guidance as you strive to inspire and lead your communities during these challenging times.

Maya Bernstein is the director of leadership education at Maharat. She is the founding co-director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership’s Certificate in Facilitation and is on the faculty of the Masa Leadership Center in Jerusalem.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the co-founder and president of Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy. She is also on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.