The Power of Leaders Who Leverage Networks

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.


By Stosh Cotler

At a time when our country – and world – feel so upside down, effective and transformative leadership has never been more needed. The Center for CreativeLeadership study commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation helps us name and tackle perennial challenges in Jewish leadership with the profound urgency this political and spiritual moment demands.

Reading through the report, I stumbled upon my own words quoted from a talk I gave in 2014 titled “Discontinuing Jewish Continuity.” My central argument, then and now, is that our American Jewish community is not suffering from a crisis of Jewish continuity, but rather from a crisis of Jewish communal purpose. And, I would suggest, we need visionary and ordinary leaders – leading from a multiplicity of locations, identities, communities and platforms – to help us articulate that purpose and shape our future.

As the study describes, the challenges of leadership include the ability to manage polarities, to build inclusive and diverse communities, to develop Jewish education that is rigorous enough to transmit core Jewish principles while being accessible to an increasingly expansive Jewish population, to build Jewish organizations that attract and retain talent, and lastly to elevate our leadership game beyond our primary institutions in service to activating and aggregating the power of our networks for maximum impact.

In regard to the leadership practice of collaboration and the power of network-level leadership, I have seen firsthand the exponential and longitudinal benefit of this approach. In 2004 Bend the Arc (then Jewish Funds for Justice) launched The Selah Leadership Program in partnership with The Rockwood Leadership Institute, with initial funding provided by the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Rather than develop a leadership program that would primarily benefit our organization, we designed Selah to be a world-class leadership program that would also create the conditions necessary for a Jewish social justice sector to emerge and thrive. Selah was a deliberate intervention into the Jewish community, and the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is one concrete manifestation of this network-level investment. Selah is now midway through our second Jewish communal intervention: to support the leadership of Jews of Color through four consecutive Selah Jewish Leaders of Color cohorts. By lifting up and fortifying the leadership of Jews of Color, Bend the Arc is playing one strategic role among many in helping our multiracial Jewish community live into a greater commitment to racial equity. We are deeply grateful for the partnership of the Jim Joseph Foundation, as well as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jews of Color Field-Building Initiative in supporting this essential work.

And yet, on this question of network level leadership, I find myself grappling with some of the same questions that I articulated in that talk many years ago. When I think about the tremendous power of “network weavers,” the enormous resources spent on field-wide collaborations, or the well-meaning inclination for collective endeavors – all of which I support wholeheartedly – I come back to two questions: who has, de-facto, defined the parameters and actors that comprise the network, and when all is said and done “to what end”?

We know that most of our current Jewish institutions are not yet being led by Jews who represent the plurality and multiplicity of our community (including, but not limited to leadership by women, Jews of Color, and younger Jews), and we also know that many of our Jewish communal organizations are no longer feeling alive and relevant to a significant percentage of the [American] Jewish community. Given this reality, is it perhaps the strongest leadership move to pause before investing in the success of this iteration of our Jewish ecosystem? Or, if we choose to activate and harness the power of the networks we have, how can we be mindful of the perspectives, voices, practices and brilliance that is missing? What is our responsibility as leaders to mitigate this absence in our own institutions, and in our Jewish ecosystem as a whole?

And, as our Jewish community and communal ecosystems continue to transform, we will still need to answer the question: What is our shared vision, and why is it essential for us to reach for that vision together? How will we remain aligned and moving forward over time? When we work to elevate our own and other organizations in a networked system, the system itself is strengthened. Reinforcing an ill-defined system can create deeper challenges. I often wonder how much more powerful we could be if our networks had a conscious and explicit vision for our collective success.

Many Jewish social justice leaders are tackling versions of this problem together. Leaders and organizations from The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, for example, have made a multi-year commitment to advance practices and policies of racial equity in our organizations and broader field. In moving together in formation towards our shared vision of making social justice a core expression of Jewish life, we are learning to share responsibility and accountability for the historic- and current- manifestations of racism inside the Jewish community.  This is network level leadership in action.

Developing the capacity of Jewish leaders to ask these bigger questions and skillfully lead our organizations – and broader community – is a critical need. We are grateful that the field is moving in this new direction and that the very nature of the ecosystem of leadership development is expanding and reshaping itself.

Stosh Cotler is the Chief Executive Officer of Bend the Arc