Teaching Emotional Intelligence through Jewish Text

How JNLI is solving the Jewish communal leadership crisis

Graduates of the 2015-2016 Jewish Nonprofit Leadership Institute.
Graduates of the 2015-2016 Jewish Nonprofit Leadership Institute

By Jackie Congedo

If you asked a room full of Jewish communal professionals what makes a good leader, I’d bet they could tell you. Someone with unshakeable dedication to his or her team’s mission. Someone who puts the team before him- or herself.

So why then does the Jewish communal world face a leadership crisis? Michael J. Austin and Tracy Salkowitz predicted the concerning trend in a 2009 study, in which only 25 percent of executives surveyed could identify “up-and-coming stars” to lead their organizations into the future. The answer to this paradoxical question is a simple one: knowing what good leadership looks like and having the tools to actually practice good leadership are two different things.

Executives at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati are on to this, which is why they’ve created the Jewish Nonprofit Leadership Institute (JNLI): a six-month course for Jewish communal professionals that teaches leadership through the lens of Jewish text. The course is the first of its kind to be taught on a local, community level, and I was fortunate enough to be part of the second graduating class.

For some perspective, let’s rewind a bit. Before moving into my current position as the Public Relations Manager at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, I spent almost a decade as a broadcast journalist in the wild world of local TV news. There was hardly time to eat and use the restroom, let alone think about how to be more emotionally intelligent stewards of our missions. You can imagine how it rocked my world to hear I would be given a full workday once each month to learn about leadership. To be fair, the other end of the institutionalized professional development spectrum isn’t so great either. We’ve all experienced work environments where buzz phrases like “strategic plan” and “managing up” are part of the mandatory corporate vocabulary, but not actually taught and practiced.

The JNLI experience sits right in the middle of those two extremes. The recipe for success here is in the unique design of the course, and the flawless execution of it by University of Cincinnati Judaic Studies professor Arna Poupko Fisher, and leadership guru Tom Monaco. These two dynamic educators proved to be the perfect complements to one another, both in terms of their teaching styles and the content of their lessons. Monaco led us through exercises that helped us assess our own strengths and leadership competencies, and identify our personal core values, and mission and vision statements. With the support of supplemental readings, he then provided researched and vetted methods for change and improvement. Fisher’s lessons were rich and poetic. They involved the exploration of leadership principles through ancient Jewish texts, proving that emotionally intelligent leadership is not a new idea, and that people have been trying to learn and master it for centuries. The course also featured monthly coaching sessions in which smaller groups shared a confidential, safe space for critique and personal growth.

JNLI gets at the heart of what’s causing today’s leadership crisis. Too often, in our profit-driven world, the emphasis on efficiency and execution drowns out the need for relationship building and strategic thinking. As we learned in JNLI, the dynamics that drive us can be understood through the lens of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s reading of the “two Adams” of the Book of Genesis. As described by author David Brooks, our results-driven society rewards the material success of the “Adam 1” self and often ignores the development of the more transformative, humble, emotionally intelligent “Adam 2” self.

JNLI is a deliberate effort to teach “Adam 1” achievers how to cultivate and harness the power of their emotionally intelligent “Adam 2” selves. The result is the admirable leadership quality that any room full of Jewish professionals can recognize, but few can achieve. It’s what business consultant Jim Collins calls “Level 5 Leadership: the paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will.”

I’m proud of the ten Cincinnati agencies and organizations that enrolled staff in this year’s JNLI course, and therefore empowered us to be ambassadors of these leadership lessons in our own workplaces. I notice the impact of JNLI in my work and in my personal life. I’ve come a long way since the not-so-distant days of sacrificing everything (bathroom breaks included) for the sake of immediate productivity. I’m a more strategic thinker. I’m a more generous listener. I’m a more resonant leader. And it’s because I’ve been given the tools re-train myself.

It’s easy to argue that innovative leadership courses like JNLI are expensive, both in terms of hard and soft costs. But I would make the case that investing in leadership development is something we can’t afford not to do. Classes like JNLI will ensure that the next generation of leaders has what it takes to rise to the challenge of tomorrow’s Jewish communal world in an emotionally intelligent way.

Jackie Congedo is the Public Relations Manager for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.