Productive discomfort

Leadership involves taking risks — let’s begin

To forge ahead in my work in the midst of the current crisis in Israel and Gaza, I have been looking back — back to undoubtedly the most impactful professional development opportunity I have been privileged to participate in to date. 

The Jewish Agency for Israel’s inaugural Adaptive Leadership Lab in 2017 brought together a global cohort of around 20 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders for three immersive experiences over the course of one year. Held in Jerusalem, Budapest and Montreal and co-facilitated by Sarah Mali and Maya Bernstein, these events were experimental proving grounds where we could witness adaptive leadership methodology in action, priming us for how we would bring these tools home to our jobs, our communities and our lives.

In a macro sense, adaptive leadership is a toolbox, a way of approaching complex problems and emerging crises to experiment towards systemic change. In a micro sense, it has the capacity to transform how we see ourselves, others and the world around us. 

While it would be laborious and unrealistic to try to convey everything about adaptive leadership here, my intention is to lay forth three concepts of the approach that I believe can serve us today — both as professionals in Jewish communities and in our “civilian” lives, so to speak. While these can directly impact how we individually and collectively approach the war in Israel and Gaza, I venture to say that they have far-reaching impacts for how our communal field could evolve, substantially for the better. 

1) Embrace self-awareness and act accordingly

As individuals, as teams, as institutions, we all have things we do well, and things we do less well. If ever there was a moment in our lifetime for the Jewish people to acknowledge their individual assets and leverage them, now is that moment. Equally so, this is a moment for humility — to recognize our growing edges and vulnerabilities and where we are willing to step back so others can step in.

I have been in professional situations in the past where the well-worn path was to point fingers and criticize missteps, for those on high to attempt to demonstrate a certain level of content knowledge and then to avoid any need for systemic change to evolve a team’s dynamic. It was neither productive nor inspiring, and it also led to an experience in which there were always wrongdoers and those who pointed out the perceived wrongdoing of others.

Leadership, as defined by the adaptive leadership methodology, encourages collective accountability, ensuring loosened timelines and expectations in times of crisis if needed while also increasing honest conversation. Now that is an inspiring way to lead.  

2) Survey the scene and brace for risk

If it were ever possible for us before to cleave to a sense of equilibrium when it came to Israel or global antisemitism, that fallacy of control was shattered on Oct. 7, 2023. Since then, we’ve been living in the in-between: waiting for the dead to be counted; waiting for bodies to be identified; waiting for hostages to be released; waiting for what comes next in Israel and in Gaza; waiting for the worldwide community to discern nuance from both sides-ism. 

Adaptive leadership encourages us to dance at the edge of our leadership, to support ourselves and those around us in moving from status quo into a zone of experimentation. In creating incremental change, we have to be OK with disappointing people (at a rate they can tolerate) for that change to stand a chance of being sustainable. The sudden movements, the demands for systemic change overnight — those efforts are rarely effective in the long term because they don’t do anything to allow people to live inside the tangible uncertainty of the moment and bring people along into shared mobilization. Instead, assess the landscape at hand, take the temperature of those involved and identify the potential risks in the move you plan to make.

This could be speaking up in a meeting when you otherwise would hold your tongue, suggesting an alternative opinion that may be unfavorable to the mainstream, or even responding with silence. Sometimes it can be the not-doing that allows the heat to rise in a given situation, and that productive discomfort serves as a gateway to something new, unanticipated and, ultimately, productive. 

3) Speak to and honor loss (upon loss, upon loss…)

Adaptive leadership is not intended to be a heartless endeavor. Those of us who adhere to the adaptive leadership methodology know that this is work of the heart. Making bold moves can be stomach-churning at times — and there will be loss, inevitably so, for those of us who venture to enact systemic change. For the Jewish people right now, regardless of where we live on the political spectrum, loss is all around us; for the purposes of my proposal here, that means we have to consider how to enact change while people are clinging for their lives to a safety net that may no longer exist. I cannot help but wonder what we would miss out on if we wait too long to really consider the bold moves our generation can take and instead become paralyzed in the initial loss — if we focus only on the urgent needs at hand and without seeing the other revolutions ahead. I encourage us to wrestle with balancing up on that tightrope of grieving with respect and impassionately doing what needs to be done with an eye towards a longer-term future. This will require humility, kindness and also boldness.

People are grieving the norm of what once was. When the status quo was comfortable, nobody had to look too hard at themselves. Now is an irrefutable turning point in which we can no longer sit comfortably on our perches, typing away behind our Zoom screens. Witness the systems and behaviors that are repeating themselves around you, pack a healthy dose of courage as you craft the moves you could make, and huddle up with your trusted confidants so you have sanctuary when you’re bracing for the risks ahead. There is no other person better suited to the task at hand than you. You’re on the hook for this. We all are.

Meredith Levick is a senior program professional with a background in communications, client management and organizational development. She currently works as a consultant for a number of organizations, including Hakhel: The Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator and the Varda Institute.