Leading for Innovation

[This article is the third of a four part series by Misha Galperin. You can find the previous two here: Heroic Leadership, Leading with Force.]

by Misha Galperin

When I was a student at Yeshiva University, I learned a great deal about Judaism, having been deprived of the richness of a Jewish education in the FSU. I don’t really know why they took me. They realized I knew nothing and had a group of rabbis and students stuff me with basic Judaism the weekend before classes started, thinking they could get me up to speed. It’s hard to master 4,000 years in two days. I wasn’t up to the task.

But over the course of my time there, there was one Jewish teaching of many that lodged itself in my brain. I remember a law that said that one had to say something new in prayer each and every day. I am not a person who prays regularly, I confess, so this was not of huge practical importance, but it had symbolic significance for me.

What it meant to me then and now is that Judaism has always created a place for the new and original alongside timeworn traditions. If there is no newness in what we do then the rituals that are old will have no meaning either. They will not be sustainable because they will fail to inspire. And inspiration is critical.

In my thirty years of work, I believe that the greatest struggle is to stay inspired. We all have the transformational moments that make us want to make a difference. The problem is that to keep making a difference we need to be nourished by inspiration. If it’s a flash-in-the-pan experience, then our leadership doesn’t truly stand a chance. Instead, we have to understand what inspires us and try to put ourselves closer to sources of inspiration so that we get an almost daily injection. Without it, we put our leadership into jeopardy.

We all know people whose leadership is traced back to a singular moment of inspiration that has run dry. Instead of being optimistic, passionate and nurturing, these leaders are cynical, sarcastic and usually negative. They’ve been there and done that. Their inspiration is years-old and worn down, and without it, they cannot influence others because they have stopped aspiring themselves.

And herein lies the profound connection between inspiration and innovation. They work together in a causal fashion. When I feel inspired, I am more likely to innovate. When I innovate and find something new and different, I feel inspired, and the positive cycle continues. And that explains why the rabbinic text says that I have to say something new every day. It’s not only about the newness of a thought. It’s about the everydayness of its repetition. Leaders need to have big thoughts and help others become bigger. And they need to do that every day. And they can only do that when they are self-nourishing and feel the inspiration to innovate.

Misha Galperin is president and chief executive officer of Jewish Agency International Development. His forthcoming book “Reimagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations: Ten Practical Lessons to Help You Implement Change and Achieve Your Goals”, published by Jewish Lights, will be available July 19th.