Ready to Lead? Well – Not Exactly. But Here is an Opportunity.

personal leadershipBy Eran Vaisben, Ed.D.

The Pipeline Alliance initiative recently created by key foundations in the Jewish world should be embraced by rabbinical schools and nonprofit management programs. The Pipeline Alliance’s purpose of cultivating a new generation of leadership has the potential to reshape American Jewry as we know it.

I began to realize the importance of leadership training and development through my recent doctorate research study. The study focused on assessing the level of preparation of religious school directors as leaders and managers. The complex position of supplementary school principals has been discussed by many scholars over the past two decades. Expectations that such leaders assume both the roles of educators and of administrators in a congregational setting make this position multifaceted and challenging. In such a setting, as in many other organizations, the leadership and management roles often merge and overlap. As Peter Drucker, the management guru, once said: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Through my study, I first tried to identify the most important management and leadership skills and qualifications of Jewish supplementary school directors. A group of 90 directors completed a long survey and ranked the significance of a list of 25 skills. Since I have been working as a religious school director over the past nine years, the results didn’t surprise me. Skills, such as good communication, staff supervision, budget management, and relations with lay leaders, were at the top of the list. Additionally, vision development and leading change were also ranked as extremely important traits for school principals.

When I investigated survey participant levels of preparation to perform some of these management tasks and to acquire leadership skills, the results were grim. The vast majority of the respondents shared that they were insufficiently prepared to conduct four key job duties: managing HR, leading and initiating change, working with lay leaders and board, and creating and managing budgets.

The most concerning data were collected from 16 rabbis who completed the research’s survey. Those conservative and reform rabbis completed (at least) five years of rabbinical school, and some even extended their training in order to attain a graduate degree in Jewish education. For one reason or another, those rabbis decided to pursue a career in Jewish education and not take a pulpit position. This group of rabbi’s responses reflected the same results that were collected from the entire study population. In other words, the rabbis also indicated that they were undertrained to conduct important professional tasks and to acquire key leadership and management skills.

Enough has been written over the past two decades about the transformation of synagogues and Jewish communities. Today, many congregations are experiencing membership decline that results in changes of management structure and manpower cuts. Many boards reassign some of the congregation’s management work load to their rabbi(s). Many rabbis’ job portfolios have been expanded and now include tasks such as HR management, fundraising, and budgeting. However, these rabbis are unequipped to handle administrative tasks, and some fail as managers. Moreover, some rabbis lack key leadership skills, such as lay leadership relationship development and conflict resolution. I have worked with many rabbis who, as inspirational as they were, couldn’t make a simple budgeting decision or guide their congregation through a visionary process.

Beyond congregations and schools, today many rabbis hold important leadership positions at major Jewish organizations and institutions such as Hillels, federations, and foundations. Some boards perceive rabbinical s’micha as an indicator for solid leadership expertise. But in reality, their lack of effective leadership and management training may create fundamental problems that eventually could impede progression. How can an organization move forward without a visionary leader? How can an executive who is unequipped to guide an organization’s board and employees succeed?

What can we do about this? Well, rabbinical schools must address these professional needs and become more attuned to the evolving practical requirements of this profession. Learning Jewish texts, providing pastoral care, and officiating lifecycle events are as important as skills such as fundraising, conflict resolution, and forming relations with lay leaders. Rabbinical schools should consider conducting comprehensive assessments that include input from key Jewish organizations, congregations, and recent graduates. The data collected will result in a listing of qualifications, tasks, and assignments that are essential for a rabbi to obtain in order to prosper in his or her position as a leader. It will require some major modifications of their programs’ curriculum and structure. Investigating the practice of various successful business and management schools, as well as some educational leadership programs, could help by providing a list of best practices in the field of leadership and management training. Through my study I found that the list includes a good mentoring process, case study-based courses, and collegial support during and also after the completion of the degree programs.

The Pipeline Alliance, a blessed initiative for the future of our communities, must reach out to various rabbinical schools and Jewish nonprofit management graduate programs to form tight collaborations. Similarly, these schools, together with other professional development programs such as the Wexner Fellowship, should welcome the Pipeline Alliance initiative with open arms and together learn how to cultivate the next generation of change agents and visionary leaders with strong management expertise.

Eran Vaisben holds a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership from UC Davis. He has been a Jewish educator for 13 years.