Putting Who You Are Into How You Lead

by Adam Simon

Along with much of the country right now, I am captivated by the commentary surrounding the upcoming election – with sharper lines drawn between the parties’ most ardent followers and a seemingly ever-narrower space for thoughtful discussion. Despite the constant cacophony of pundits and public figures arguing over who is winning and who is losing on any particular day (which – I admit – I read voraciously), I am struck by the deafening silence on the issue I consider most critical: the core values we as a country believe should drive how we make decisions.

“Values” is a loaded term, especially when it comes to politics and religion. Too often co-opted by those on the extremes and ceded by those in the center, it becomes code for where one stands on abortion, same sex marriage and other hot-button issues. The effect is that thoughtful debate guided by a framework of clearly articulated values is subjugated to posturing and sound bites – and leaders focused more on declaring who they stand against rather than what they stand for.

Many exceptional individuals counter this prevailing norm, explicitly applying values to their leadership.

Robert Reffkin is a particularly interesting example of such a leader who grounds how he lives and works in values. Holding a senior position in a top corporate finance firm, he works in a field not known for scrupulous principles, yet he has leveraged his knowledge, skills and connections to found New York Needs You, which provides New Yorkers with opportunities to volunteer as career mentors for children in need. He has also applied his social justice commitments to his workout routine, completing marathons in 49 states in an effort to raise $1 million for causes aligned with his deepest social change priorities.

Reffkin is someone who has a deep understanding of who he is and what drives him and, in turn, takes great risks to apply that to everything he does. I raise Reffkin as a model for what we ought to have in mind as we work to foster and inspire the next generation of leaders.

At the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, we believe in putting values at the center of the leadership experiences we create and support for young people working in a wide variety of fields, from nonprofit to for-profit professionals, from those powering the education reform movement to those invested in new social ventures.

Within the Jewish community in particular, we are fortunate that compelling and relevant values form the bedrock of our rich, millennia-old heritage and traditions. By grounding Jewish experiences in these values, we can help young people move from viewing Judaism as irrelevant to seeding its potential for informing and enriching how they work, how they love, how they lead, how they live, how they give, how they treat people and more.

For example:

  • We are taught to pray in a minyan. While there are quite a few popular business books on the importance of tribes to making change (Seth Godin’s, for example), Judaism figured out millennia ago that we should not go about major things – like talking to God – alone. Hence Jewish law requires a minyan, a group of 10 adults, to recite many prayers. We do not lead or make change alone, but rather we do it with a community.
  • We are charged to pursue justice. We are in this world to make it a better place, to leverage the privileges we have to give opportunities to others and to be doers, not bystanders, in repairing our broken world. N’aaseh v’nishma: we will do and we will listen. We lead by example.
  • We rest on Shabbat. We have a structured way to recharge and rejuvenate each week. After working for six days, emptying our mental, spiritual, emotional and physical cups, we replenish. Shabbat teaches us to stop, focus on the present, treasure each moment and focus on the greatest work we can be doing throughout each work day.
  • We view every individual as having infinite value. We treat others the way we would imagine God should be treated, recognizing that they are made in God’s image – betzelem elokim – resulting in a profound impact on how we lead, make decisions, treat coworkers and family members and more.

Call it a minyan or a tribe, tikkun olam or pursuing a better world, Shabbat or rest, betzelem elokim or respect. Jewish lessons in leadership and living abound.

A broader embrace of Jewish values-rich leadership training and practice can help people connect with the key lessons Judaism has to offer about how to live a happier and more fulfilling life. In doing so, we can foster a new generation of Jewish leaders who prioritize values over vitriol in engaging with substantive issues as they work to build a more just, equitable and healthy society.

Adam Simon is the Associate National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and director of REALITY. CLSFF and REALITY are part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, a global network of philanthropic initiatives focused on igniting the power in young people to create change for themselves, in the Jewish community and across the broader world. CLSPN also includes the Schusterman Foundation-Israel (SFI) and ROI Community (ROI).