Promoting the “Out-of-the-Closet” Jewish Professional Leader

by David Bernstein

Several years ago I was browsing the aisles of Barnes & Noble when I came across a book called “How to Become CEO” by Jeffrey Fox. The book offered up such pearls of wisdom as “avoid superiors when you travel,” and “Skip all Office Parties ,“ in which the author advised that “It won’t hurt you not to go at all … if the unwritten rule is “you must attend or you will offend” then go … Stay no more than 45 minutes.”

The author was helping his ambitious readers navigate the treacherous political waters of the workplace and cultivate an executive image and a personal mystique – aloof and serious – that can help land a C-Suite job. We can all imagine this politician professional: well dressed, measured in tone, affable but serious and relentlessly disciplined.

But in the past 20 years a new executive archetype has arisen, contesting the conventional, buttoned-up model. It’s the Silicon Valley high tech exec, such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos. The new exec may wear jeans or a turtleneck to work, be highly animated in their speech, extremely accessible and prone to creative rants and big ideas. The new exec is weird.

In my cursory check on Google Images, I could only find one photo of Mark Zuckerberg in a suit and tie – his wedding picture. If you ran into the old style executive on the street, you’d know immediately they were someone important; if you ran into the new style executive, you might think they sell video games at the mall.

How execs dress is not the issue here. It’s their accessibility and openness. And just for the record, there are numerous world-class executives who are quite buttoned up in personality and in dress. It may be the exact right leadership model for some settings. But the world is changing, and so must the leadership paradigm in the Jewish organizational world. The problem with some politician execs is that they value the same political maneuvering that helped them get promoted, and they end up creating a highly politicized organizational culture, mired in politics and low in candor.

Another downside to old style leaders is they may be poorly equipped to operate in a fast and furious technological and communications environment. In a superb piece in Harvard Business Review, Allison Fine, author of The Networked Nonprofit, described opposing leadership styles in handling the crises that ensued when Susan G. Koman defunded Planned Parenthood. It took Koman CEO Nancy Brinker nearly 24 hours to respond to rapidly proliferating news stories. “Komen’s inaction,” writes Fine, “contrasted with Planned Parenthood, whose facility with social media allowed the organization to respond immediately, on a variety of channels. The difference reflects Brinker’s top-down command and control management style versus Planned Parenthood’s CEO, Cecile Richard’s, enthusiastic embrace of social media.”

According to Fine, “the real problem is that using social media challenges their (old style leaders) basic assumptions of what it means to be “professional.” The definition of professional behavior is an immutable set of behaviors developed early in one’s career.”

Fine lays out the following chart showing the disparate worldviews of the old and new professional leader:

Old Professional New Professional
I am closed to the world I am open and accessible to the world, strengthening my relationship with people
I can’t make mistakes I am human, when I inevitably make mistakes, I apologize quickly and sincerely
I don’t reveal my personal interests to the world My interests, hobbies, passions, make me interesting and attractive
I am expected to have the answers to questions I am searching for answers with my network of colleagues and supporters
Power is taken and held Power is shared and grown

In another recent piece in Harvard Business Review titled “Come Out of the Closet at Work, Whether You’re Gay or Not,” strategy consultant Dorrie Clark writes, “The boundaries are breaking down, privacy is a shimmering mirage, and we’re stuck in a world where you’re expected, and required, to be yourself.” She observes that “bringing your whole self to work is increasingly encouraged (think Zappos and their stated corporate policy of embracing weirdness).”

Allison Fine writes that “Millennials – late teens to thirty year-olds – have a vastly different notion of what it means to present oneself to the world wearing their business hat.”

If the Jewish community is going to attract top talent for the future, we must provide the type of authentic work environments and organizational cultures that appeal to a younger generation of professionals, organizations led by out-of-the-closet, authentic professional leaders they can relate to – the kind they aspire to become when they take the reins.

Beyond attracting talent, promoting authentic leaders is about success in accomplishing the missions of Jewish organizations. The authentic leader creates a more open and honest work environment. More open and honest cultures encourage discussion on organizational strengths and weaknesses. More honest discussions help organizations adapt to a shifting strategic environment. Better and faster adaptation makes organizations more likely to succeed in achieving their missions.

The question for the Jewish world, as we grapple with our own looming scarcity of qualified professional leaders, is: what kind of organizations do we want in the future: buttoned-up, or open and honest? Hierarchical or horizontal?

If we want the latter, we need to be on the look-out for and cultivate different types of professional leaders who exhibit authentic leadership qualities, an open and honest communication style and a commitment to creating participatory organizational environments. We must educate and train for it. Jewish funders, who often guide the executive search processes, must be keyed into such qualities, broadening their view of what a leader looks and acts like.

It’s time to promote the “out-of-the-closet” Jewish professional leader.

David Bernstein is the executive director of The David Project. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein