By Bill Robinson, PhD
The promise of leadership is deceptively simple: the leader will bring us from where we are to where we desire to be. In taking on leadership or joining with leaders (followership), we commit ourselves to bring into being that place we seek. Yet, not all ends chosen by leaders are equally valid or valuable. We, as Jews and Americans, are inheritors of both an ancient tradition and the modern enlightenment. These call forth a very particular and profound end toward which we should lead.
Martin Buber’s writings illuminate this vital end. As both an engaged Jew and philosopher of modernity, Buber asserts that what we should all be seeking is community, in contrast to that which we have often found, collectivity.
“For who in all these massed, mingled, marching collectivities still perceives what that is for which he supposes he is striving – what community is? They have all surrendered to its counterpart. Collectivity is not a binding but a bundling together: individuals packed together, armed and equipped in common, with only as much life from man to man as will inflame the marching step. But community, growing community (which is all we have known so far) is the being no longer side by side but with one another of a multitude of persons. And this multitude, though it also moves toward one goal, yet experiences everywhere a turning to, a dynamic facing of, the other, a flowing from I to Thou.”
The ends that collectivities seek are external to the relations among those seeking, and as such render those internal relations (and thus those people) as a means to the supposedly greater end. We descend, in Buber’s language, into relations of “I-it,” sacrificing community for some external end.
In community, we voluntarily come together to be present to one another and to care for one another. Through community, we seek transcendent meaning and purpose in our lives, wanting what we do to matter beyond us and outlast us. We therefore work to heal the world in which our community lives, though not in ways that sacrifice community.
In community, the ends we seek are the ethical relations that define how we act with one another as members of a community. In community, the being there for one another is a value by itself. As Buber also says, the goal of community is community.
In the ancient language of the Jewish people, Buber’s concept of community is that of a covenantal community – people who voluntarily commit to being there for one another and the world they inhabit together, grounded in a wrestling with the transcendent. By calling for covenantal communities (and not just the colloquially used “communities”), we ensure that we don’t mistakenly start thinking that any grouping of people is a community; in Buber’s understanding of these important words, most groupings are collectivities. Moreover, we make explicit that which is implicit in Buber, namely the covenantal promise that eventually we will live in a world redeemed, where we are all there for one another.
Last, covenantal community is not just our inherited purpose. It is profoundly suited to the needs of our times. As many keen observers of our world have remarked, the complexity of the challenges facing us require that we work collaboratively to address them. As a result, leaders need their followers to be empowered to co-lead with them. We need everyone’s energy and wisdom.
As many others before me have noted, the pace of change today is too fast to put our faith in multi-year strategic plans. Leaders must not inscribe into stone the concrete ends we seek, along with the actions their followers must take to realize those ends. Instead, we must be more flexible, learning and changing course as we go. Most importantly, we must work incrementally, building resilient achievements that model our ultimate goals and become the building blocks for future change. These building blocks are covenantal communities. We must still think systemically and connect globally, and as described in the work of How We Gather, we need to build local covenantal communities where the value of our efforts can be immediately felt and inspire further commitment.
How educational spaces offer the opportunity to build covenantal community, and how leadership is at root educational, are questions I address in The Leadership Difference: Thoughts on Leadership from Staff and Alumni, the latest publication of the Leadership Commons. Based on the thinking of Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, and others, I also offer a five-step process for leading toward covenantal community: Declare, Remember, Presence, Belong, and Resign. I hope you take time to visit our publication, delve further into the potential and promise of covenantal community, and read the ideas and insights on leadership from my colleagues and our esteemed alumni.
Dr. Bill Robinsion is dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.