The Many Faces of Leadership

by Justin Korda

In a recent article on this site entitled “Visionary Leadership: Missing in Action,” Dan Brown asks: Where are the visionary leaders who will guide our community through the next decade, and even further into the future? Where is the next David Ben-Gurion, A.J. Heschel, Mordechai Kaplan, Shimon Peres, Menachem Schneerson or Joseph Solevetchik?

While I greatly respect Brown’s thoughtfulness on the topic, I am far more optimistic about the emerging leaders I see coming up in the ranks to guide our community into the 21st century. Indeed, where Brown sees a lack of visionary leadership, I see a new model of leadership on the rise.

I recently had the good fortune of receiving “The Starfish and the Spider,” a book by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, which discusses the concept of open source or decentralized leadership. Whereas as a starfish and a spider have similar shapes, their internal structures are very different – a decapitated spider inevitably dies, while a starfish can regenerate itself from a single amputated leg.

Much like the starfish, decentralized organizations, like the Internet, are made up of many smaller hubs and nodes that are capable of operating, growing and multiplying independently of each other, making it very difficult for a rival force to control or defeat them.

This model of leadership is not without its flaws, but then again, neither is any model of leadership – or any leader for that matter. Each generation faces a specific set of challenges that they must rise up to meet. Models of leadership, and thus the leaders themselves, emerge as a response and as a guide.

What defined the “visionary leadership” of old was very much the way those specific leaders rose to the challenges of their times, which were by and large hugely significant existential threats: the establishment of Israel, the Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis and so on. (Let us also consider that these leaders did not have to contend with today’s unprecedented level of public scrutiny where every act – past or present, public or private – is examined under a microscope.)

Today, while we indisputably face an existential threat from Iran, we are also living in the freest of times we as a people have ever known. Our challenge, however, is just as important and in many ways just as urgent, but it is not one that can be solved with a declaration of statehood or military force. We must learn how to engage a generation of young Jews for whom historical obligation is not a sufficient reason to be Jewish. We have to find and create opportunities for young people to engage in Jewish life that is meaningful, relevant and compelling enough to compete for their time and mind-space.

The leadership style best suited to this process is not that of the spider, which is commanded down from on high, but rather, that of the starfish, which is rooted in the open-source language of a social world: connections, networks, unexpected partnerships, a widened circle of discourse and perspective, both Facebook and face time, investment in ideas and the people with the blueprints to execute those ideas.

As Brown noted in his piece, there are many programs and organizations working to facilitate the emergence of starfish-style leadership. Through these programs, we are seeing future leaders emerge with stronger networks and partnerships to support them on their journeys, and we are learning important lessons that might help others in their search for the Jewish leaders and activists of tomorrow.

Foremost among these lessons is that we no longer live in a top-down world where the collective will necessarily work toward the vision of one. Rather, we see that we have an end in mind – a vibrant global Jewish peoplehood generations into the future – and many emerging leaders driven by different, though not incongruous or incompatible, ideas for achieving this end. The joy of Jewish living, giving and learning can become a reality only when it’s pursued as part of an organic community.

It is often easy to be agreeable, or to be led, in times of crises. The real challenge is how we connect in good times, in times of unprecedented freedom. That takes a very different set of leadership qualities.

Justin Korda is the director of ROI, a global community of outstandingly creative individuals who have a personal vision about how to make the Jewish world a better place.

A version of this article was posted as a comment on Visionary Leadership: Missing in Action.