The Virtues of Leadership … Words Do Matter!

leadership-compassBy Avrum Lapin

Who are our leaders of today? Are they politicians? Faith leaders? Athletes? People of international stature? Humanitarian figures? Are they people who do good, bad, or in between?

In today’s world where sports icons are making more news with their violent behavior off the field than their prowess between the lines, we need to ask ourselves very carefully about the definition and assignment of leadership.

We all remember the classic portrayal in “Trading Places” where the Duke Brothers devise a nefarious plot driven by a $1 bet to measure the preeminence of “nurture over nature.” In doing so they could scoop up a homeless man (Eddie Murphy) and transform him, seemingly overnight, into a leading authority and celebrity in the world of finance, and take a well bred and successful financier (Dan Aykroyd) and transform him into a bumbling beggar. The film, as we all remember, ends with the Duke Brothers being outsmarted and beaten at their own game.

Where was the leadership in all of this? Was it in the experiment? Was it in the inclination and ability on the part of the wealthy and powerful to manipulate others? Was it in the ability of those set upon and manipulated to turn the tables on their antagonists? Some may say that it is “all of the above.”

Leadership is the ability to think creatively and use that creative conception and impulse to influence circumstance and events and to cross conventional lines. In this way leaders redirect an activity or an entity, enabling it to achieve a determined goal, generating transformative results. Leaders are those men and women who can conceive of and articulate innovation and change-driven ideas, and to motivate, guide and direct others and their environment toward executing plans of action, thus creating and making a difference.

As a matter of definition and qualification, this is far different from management, which is often not based on creative energy, and focuses on the fulfillment of existing imperatives or of the plans of others. I say this not as a matter of criticism, as the world needs both – people who will dream and innovate, and those who will make sure that the innovations are “shovel-ready” for implementation.

In the world of philanthropy, especially in the Jewish world, leadership is a matter of daily conversation. We acknowledge leadership, we develop leadership, we encourage and train leaders, we determine the skills and capabilities that define leaders and we expand the definition of leadership to suit our circumstances; often, I may add – at our own peril.

What do we mean when we thank someone for their leadership? What are we thanking them for and how is leadership expressed?

What do we mean when we call someone a leader in the Jewish philanthropic enterprise? Are they inspirers, cheerleaders, servants, helpers, facilitators, guides?

Quoting traditional Jewish teaching (Talmud, Avot 4:1) we learn this about positive attributes of leadership:

Ben Zoma says:

      Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…
      Who is brave? The one who subdues his negative inclination…
      Who is rich? The one who is appreciates what he has…
      Who is honored? The one who gives honor to others…

Therefore, if we are to accept this Talmudic definition of the virtues of leadership we must look inward to answer the following questions:

  • When we recognize a donor, do we consider just the gift, or also the individual and what he or she has accomplished in their lives?
  • When we honor someone at an event or a tribute, do we look aside from things that the honoree might have done, right and wrong, or the circumstances through which they may have obtained those charitable funds?
  • When we train and develop a leader and then put him or her on a pedestal as a virtuous example for their community, how do we reconcile this action with the fact that they may not have subdued their negative inclinations in other aspects of their lives?

I am not suggesting that nonprofits and the Jewish philanthropic marketplace should approach the question of leadership from a puritanical perspective or become rigid in their points of view. I truly believe that everyone is capable of improving their lives and of personal redemption, and that our society must be exceedingly careful in judging it constituents. Rather, I look at it from the point of view of the organization, ensuring that it can mobilize its assets in a way that will create the strongest value proposition.

I have written in the past about the need for nonprofits to position themselves to best succeed in an environment that has become hyper-competitive, and therefore I recommend that leaders and donors be vigilant and proactive. Staying mission driven and marshalling resources will help your nonprofit pursue a path that will most likely help you to succeed over the long term. In that context I recommend that successful nonprofits:

  • Look for synergies with donors and sponsors that will enable them to burnish their image as well as advance your case for giving; and
  • Search for those people, through carefully mapping and utilizing relationships and connections to strengthen who you are and invest in your sustainability, rather than creating a splash today and paying for it later.

Embrace the virtues of wisdom, courage, wealth and honor expressed in our tradition. In that way the work that you do, regardless of how religious you or your organization are, will truly be a sacred task.

Avrum Lapin is the President at The Lapin Group, LLC, a fundraising consulting firm located in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. The Lapin Group inspires and leads US-based and international nonprofits seeking fund, organizational, leadership, and business development solutions, offering contemporary and leading edge approaches and strategies. Avrum is a frequent contributor to and speaker in the US and in Israel on opportunities and challenges in today’s nonprofit marketplace.

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