Synagogue Leadership Development Is a Campaign, Not a Training Course

By Robert Leventhal

After 13 years as a congregational consultant at the Alban Institute working with hundreds of synagogues of all denominations, I was asked in 2011 to join the team that would build a comprehensive leadership development program for Conservative congregations affiliated with United Synagogue.

Our first step was to survey synagogue management about their leadership development practices. Leaders from 141 congregations answered numerous questions about succession planning, turnover, orientation and board training. We learned that lack of clear organizational structure and defined roles for leaders often made the work of president seem unmanageable. Absence of term limits made it difficult to encourage a stream of new leadership. There was little to no systemic development or training.

Fast forward to 2015. Our program team has built a full suite of resources, Sulam Leadership (Sulam means “ladder” in Hebrew), that have been used by emerging leaders, board members and strategic planning committees. The Sulam for Emerging Leaders action community, for example, has engaged more than 1,000 people (ages 35-45), and nearly half of them have already moved into leadership positions, bringing fresh energy and perspective to boards.

As our congregations begin to develop the next generation of leaders, what’s imperative now is that we pay attention to the boards to which these new leaders are being invited. This year, we have selected 22 highly motivated boards to test how we might be able to change board culture. These boards have committed to work for 12-15 months with our Transformation Specialists towards continuous improvement. We’re calling the program Sulam for Current Leaders Action Community.

To date, 357 congregational leaders have completed an assessment that provides a baseline about leadership practice in their synagogues. Following is an aggregate snapshot of responses.

  • Leadership Practices: The vast majority (80% of respondents) reported that board conversations are respectful and welcome differing views, but fewer than 25% can point to written goals or strategies that guide them. It is thus not surprising that 57% of meetings fail to contain at least one item designed for substantial board interaction and engagement.
  • Delegation Practices: Too often leaders don’t know what is expected of them (59% of boards do not have committee job descriptions). Only a minority (31% of respondents) said that their board maintains a “board expectations” document that covers attendance, participation and financial commitment. Most boards deal with policy issues on a “case by case” basis rather than establishing a consistent policy.
  • Volunteer Development: Leaders share that they believe their members have many untapped talents and energies. When pressed, few (17%) report that they have a system in place to identify the strengths and talents of current and potential leaders.
  • Accountability: Nearly 60% of respondents said that officers have portfolios (such as Vice President for Membership), in which they lead or provide oversight to key committees but few have written job description for their portfolio work. It is thus not surprising that less than 4% go over committee chair assessments with the president. Only 34% track key initiatives, so they are unable to celebrate successes or track plans that are stuck.

I began this article talking about the need for succession planning. Presidents need to know what should be delegated and who needs to be tasked with “accepting the baton.” This is the advice that was given to Moses by his father-in-law, Yitro, when he was setting up the Israelite court system (Exodus 18:13-27) and it is still valid today.

So what’s getting in the way? Our Kehilla Strengthening and Transformation department has gained some insight to the question of why leadership development is so hard to sustain in the work of Harvard University’s Dr. Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. In their book Immunity to Change, they argue that people may know that they need to do something (e.g. I can control my heart disease with medication…), but they have a competing narrative that impedes their ability to move forward (Medication is just for old, sick people, and I’m not old or sick.).

In our work we often hear the following: We are working with volunteers; we can’t expect professional quality work. It is hard enough to get anyone to be on the board (we have openings now). What will happen if we start having goals and holding people accountable for achieving them?

If leaders are going to make progress, they need to understand the narratives that get in the way of change, and carefully launch experiments to test these assumptions.

Leadership as a Campaign

The synagogues in our pilot Sulam for Current Leaders Action Community have been very successful in beginning to test out new approaches. Boards are becoming more reflective, engaged and strategic. They are delegating more effectively, thereby giving themselves the time to focus on the business of governance.

But the most progress will be made in congregations that approach synagogue leadership as a campaign, rather than a series of workshops. When current board members commit time (at least one full year) to changing their board culture, when prospective leaders are identified and engaged at a level that’s appropriate to their interests and skills, and when all leaders are capable of honestly addressing the narratives that keep them from moving forward, synagogue leadership can become more satisfying and sacred work. This is a campaign that has the capacity to build a foundation for the future of the entire congregation.

Robert Leventhal is a USCJ Transformation Specialist Team Leader.