Leadership Lessons at the Turn of the Year

lessons-learnedBy Judith Rosenbaum, Ph.D.

Every year at this time, as the month of Elul winds towards Tishrei, I engage in a process of heshbon nefesh – self-reflection and accounting. This year, the process is heightened by the convergence of the new Jewish year and my first anniversary as executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

It has been a whirlwind of a year, thick with learning, challenges, and growth, and I’ve benefited from increased Jewish communal discussion about leadership and succession. As I approach the one-year mark and cross the threshold into 5776, I have begun to articulate some of the key lessons that have emerged from my personal leadership development. I offer them here in the hope they may contribute to the larger conversation.

1. Trust your gut

As a leader, I value the voices and opinions of my colleagues; as a woman, I’ve been socialized to listen, to aim to please, and to second-guess myself. Sometimes these tendencies have combined into a perfect storm, drowning out my own instincts.

The most essential lesson – and one of the hardest – that I’ve learned this year is that, like many people who rise to positions of leadership, my instincts are actually pretty good. It still amazes me how much harder it can be to accept my strengths than to admit my faults. I’m learning to tune in to my inner voice and to trust it more deeply. More often than not, my instincts are right on.

As a woman in a leadership position, I am particularly committed to prioritizing this lesson. Every day, I encounter inspiring role models at jwa.org – living and historical, from Emma Goldman to Iris Apfel, from Gilda Radner to Ruth Bader Ginsburg – who have overcome self-doubt through practice and with the right support. It helps me to know – and I think it’s useful for us all to remember – that many change-makers of the past and present have encountered self-doubt and worked hard to surmount it.

2. Surround yourself with people who elicit your passion, creativity, and positivity

This one should be obvious: we’re at our best when we’re engaged with people who spark our creativity and generosity, not those who frustrate us and sap our energy. As leaders, of course, we need to work with a variety of people, and they won’t all be our workplace soul mates. But as we’re developing our staff and choosing thought partners, chemistry is really important. (This relates back to #1. You’ll probably know quickly if someone is a bad match for you. Don’t ignore that instinctive response.)

This isn’t to say that we should surround ourselves with “yes people.” Some of the most fruitful conversations I’ve had this year at the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) were also the most difficult: encounters with stakeholders who challenged me to clarify our mission, who asked what we really mean when we say that we “elevate Jewish women’s voices and inspire them to be agents of change.” The good chemistry in these conversations wasn’t that they boosted my ego, but rather that they pushed my thinking in productive ways and helped me identify the necessary next steps in our work.

This lesson has been important to me both in terms of internal staff dynamics as I build my team, and in terms of the external support I have sought. I have always identified myself as someone who learns best with a hevruta, a study partner, and what’s true in the bet midrash is just as true in the workplace. One of my most helpful practices this year has been regularly reaching out to other new executives, veteran leaders, and mentors for informal conversation and guidance. From my perch at the top of the org chart, I need hevruta partners who can effectively challenge me, encourage me, and teach me.

3. Be ready with a concrete request

One of the nicest things I have learned over the year is that most people want to be helpful! I am grateful for the generosity I have encountered, and the frequency with which current and prospective supporters have asked, “What can I do to help?” The challenge for me has been answering that question in a specific and personally tailored way, so that I do not squander the opportunity to engage a potential partner. As leaders, we need to foresee this question and know exactly what we want to ask for. And just as important, knowing the answer requires knowing the person, because at the heart of the work we do are personal relationships that demand respect and recognition.

This lesson has also helped me clarify the necessity for JWA to develop concrete avenues for engagement, actions that we invite our audience to take. We’ve achieved the first stage of our mission – to create a robust and accessible collection of Jewish women’s stories on jwa.org – and have made great strides in the next stage of using those stories to shift the mainstream Jewish narrative. Now we need to articulate more clearly the ways we can engage the public as our partners in our work, to capture the stories of the past and the unfolding history of the present.

4. Transition never endsand that’s a good thing

When I began this job one year ago, I believed the first year would be the transition period, which would draw to a neat close by the start of year two. On the cusp of my second year, I realize now that the transition is nowhere near complete. In fact, an evolving organization will always be in some kind of transition. As daunting as that can seem, it’s actually a good thing: there is no such thing as stasis for a healthy organization. The real goal is not to arrive at the end of the transition, but rather to achieve stability within a state of ongoing change.

My learning process will also be ongoing. At my one-year mark, I’m grateful for the cycles of the Jewish calendar that encourage regular self-reflection. And I am finding meaning in the liturgy of the Days of Awe, which seems to offer me guideposts for thoughtful leadership development. As I look back over the past year and devise my plan for the new one, I am inspired by the call for teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. In the context of leadership, I’ve adapted these three elements to mean reflection, a leap of faith, and generosity – key traits I am committing to bring into my workplace culture in 5776. May it be a year of growth, joyful productivity, and meaningful work for us all.

Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.