leadership lessons

Lessons on leadership from my Jewish journey

In Short

Drawing from five decades of Jewish communal leadership, stories and lessons about the successes and the failures of being in the world.

During my 50-year career framed around Jewish communal practice and teaching, I have developed lifelong friendships and met and engaged with an assortment of impressively dedicated leaders, while mastering new skills and accruing a lifetime of memories. I have also learned a lot about the nature of leadership. 

Leaders need to maintain a sense of self, examining how they perform in various settings, just as they need to measure outcomes, and even anticipate how they might operate moving forward. “Leading” is a dance, engaging with lay partners and professional colleagues to find a productive, balanced outcome in which people feel connected, successful and appreciated. “Leading” operates as a verb, representing a set of changing behaviors, with different leadership patterns coming into play as situations warrant. 

No doubt, the art and act of leading has changed over time. Today’s leaders have access to extraordinary leadership and management tools, training centers and research institutes, as well as new technologies, providing critical resources and allowing unprecedented access to information about legacy institutions, as well as exposure to newer boutique organizations, social platforms and educational resources. New generations — with their distinctive behavior patterns, priorities and interests, and their abundance of questions and insights and passions — are infusing the field with new perspectives and methods. Emerging questions such as climate change, race and gender identity, and cultural conflicts join the ranks of long-standing concerns such as antisemitism, civil and human rights, and the embedded economic and political challenges facing our society. Today’s leaders also have access to an expanded base of financial resources, with new fundraising methods like crowdfunding and social media campaigns joining more traditional funding streams and traditional donor support.

From each of my jobs, from my time at American Jewish Committee in 1969 until 2022, when I am serving as the interim director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and an assortment of additional positions along the way, I learned how to effectively operate in the Jewish communal world.

AJC (1969-1972): Learn to understand and work within a corporate culture. To succeed, one needs to understand and operate inside of the existing institutional norms and practices. Understand who has power, and how they employ it. In such top-down institutional settings, you are often dependent on your departmental leader to open opportunities for you. If you are in a situation with a departmental chair who is uncomfortable exposing or promoting his/her colleagues, you can be easily trapped; end-runs are often highly problematic in such organizational models, and if you violate expectations associated with the corporate system, you can be stigmatized or even penalized. On the other hand, if you are a vision-driven actor, on occasion you can shake up the established leadership to acknowledge your presence but more importantly to have your ideas and contributions recognized.

Federation (Albany, N.Y., 1973-1985): Know your leaders, their tastes and passions. Understand the limits of power but also maximize your opportunities. Unlike in the corporate model, here creative leadership is both craved and celebrated. In smaller communities, remember that legacy families are often interrelated and may hold extensive influence in such communal systems. In such settings, power is negotiated and built around three factors: historical precedent, the consent of the entrenched stakeholders and the availability of new potential partners.

JCRC (Los Angeles, 1985-1995):  Communal politics requires creativity to navigate and colleagues to support you. Support your colleagues, even when they face challenges and criticisms; then when you have an agenda to advance, galvanizing a cadre of supporters to stand with you may determine the success of your initiative in a competitive environment.  

HUC-Z School and deanship (1995-2010): University culture is distinctively different from communal politics, but understanding the competing silos of influence, and finding your voice amid the array of egos, is important.  Finding a campus environment where collegiality and cooperation are core values can make managing and moving within these systems rewarding and fulfilling, as was my experience at HUC-LA. In quality educational environments, student-centered outcomes are a better focus than faculty status, tenure, promotion and research.

Those who engage in leadership, often encounter some  tough realities:

Managing failure: Today, such experiences are taught as “failing forward,” but indeed there were times when we made wrong choices, concerning the selection of leaders, identifying a topic, planning an event and anticipating its turnout. So, how do we manage such moments? Hopefully, we rarely repeat past failures and move on. Of course, “messing up” can take many forms, forgetting to recognize a key lay leader or staff person, providing incorrect information, realizing that technology did not deliver or failing to show up at a critical time or place.

Dealing with unforeseen challenges:  I experienced a number of such moments. But one case stands out:  The largest community event in Albany was to take place on a very cold and snowy evening, so our speaker — a prominent national figure — had to travel by train (rather than by air). When he arrived, our hosts realized he was quite inebriated. Upon his arrival at the venue, we arranged for him to be offered coffee, ensuring that we could control his beverage intake, thereby maximizing his success when speaking, while also preserving his reputation and standing!

Here are things I have learned on my professional leadership journey that may help you with yours: 

  1. Different leadership styles and tools are required in different settings, reminding us of the importance of adaptive leadership. Different challenges suggest alternative forms of leading (technical and procedural vs. vision and policy); acknowledge that not everyone will be satisfied with your leadership. 
  2. Leaders mostly manage, and only occasionally lead. Acknowledge mistakes, apologize where and when appropriate, correct the problems, focus on what we can learn but then move on! Being patient and reflective are essential traits, step back at times before moving forward. (I readily admit my failing grade!)  
  3. Emotional Intelligence is core to one’s effectiveness. Accept the realities of any given situation, by seeking to turn lemons into lemonade! 
  4. “Command and Control” leadership can work in some select situations but be aware of the potential for fallout. Manage smartly, when and how you supervise and criticize. 
  5. Realize you will never be “a prophet in your own community.” But you cannot be effective if your institutional leadership has no shared vision. Develop the four attributes:  motivational skills,  effective communications,  capacity to manage complex situations and  build trust and confidence.

In the Midrash we read: “Everything that was created in the six days of creation requires adjustment and improvement by man: the mustard seed must be sweetened; wheat must be milled…” God left us an unfinished world for humankind to perfect.

My journey is a story about the successes and the failures of being in the world.  This saga is very much about the hundreds of leaders and activists, the many extraordinary professional colleagues and the shared challenges that we collectively embraced! Even more significant than the impact to the communal square, this journey is comprised of enduring friendships, meaningful partnerships and of course, a lifetime of amazing experiences. It is also about my students, who will always remain a significant presence. The journey has been rich, even at times exciting, but always focused on perfecting the world! 

Steven Windmueller is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies and currently serves as the interim director of HUC-JIR’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at the Jack H. Skirball campus, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.