Visionary Leadership: Missing in Action

Change is afoot in the Jewish world.

Several of our global communal organizations have recently, or are currently, undergoing transition at the top. More will over the next year or so. And there is one trait common to every single search: the leadership vacuum.

We can approach this from several areas, but I would like to address one key missing ingredient – Vision.

It’s bad enough that most of the large players in our Jewish world have paid, at best, lip-service to really developing and training a new round of leadership, both professional and lay. Yes, there are some notable examples, including Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and some of the programs under the auspices of Limmud International. Also, in their own way the various initiatives of the PresenTense Group, the ROI Community and a handful of small, mostly local, programs spread throughout western Europe and North America.

But, the leadership problem is already serious and as the economy turns around, and organizations struggle to rebuild, they will need to address their short-sighted decisions of laying off talented staff – including donor/constituent relations professionals. But, this is a story for another day.

My question now is, where are the visionary leaders who will guide our community through the next decade, and even further into the future?

The U.S. based Center for Visionary Leadership defines a visionary leader as:

“… the builders of a new dawn, working with imagination, insight, and boldness. They present a challenge that calls forth the best in people and brings them together around a shared sense of purpose. They work with the power of intentionality and alignment with a higher purpose. Their eyes are on the horizon, not just on the near at hand. They are social innovators and change agents, seeing the big picture and thinking strategically.”

One of our community’s most insightful writers on communal leadership, Erica Brown, has written that “strong personal leadership is often characterized by originality, drive, stubborn perseverance, charisma, dominance, impatience, and single-mindedness. These qualities are crucial in the risk taking that leadership so often involves.”

There are definitely individuals with experience and expertise in our community. Some, even have name recognition. But, can they inspire us? Can they see the unique role their specific organization can play in the world; can they articulate it? And most important, can they excite us?

I recently conducted an unscientific survey among twenty colleagues, reaching out to communal professionals across the demographic, geographic and philosophical divides. I asked, “Who would you consider true visionary leaders of the Jewish world – currently living or not – residence anywhere in the world – who were alive anytime post WW2?”

The replies had some predictability. Most named David Ben-Gurion; several included A.J. Heschel, Mordechai Kaplan, Shimon Peres, Menachem Schneerson and Joseph Solevetchik. But the most surprising factor was the response I received from several: their admitted frustration at not being able to come up with one single name of a visionary Jewish communal leader born following World War 2.

What a stunning indictment of our community.

So, I ask, who out there is painting an inspiring picture of what our community, or even their organization, can become? Who is addressing large-scale challenge? Who offers more than pie-in-the-sky superlatives?

Let’s face it, leading by example is not vision.

Neither is leading in time of crisis.

Both of these are clear, and necessary, management skills. But, that’s all they are.

Some of us are familiar with these words by President John F. Kennedy in 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” At the time, this was a bold challenge; clearly technologically daunting. Some even considered it lunacy. Relative to space exploration, JFK was a visionary – the engineers, scientists and politicians the executors.

We have just concluded Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. Some refer to these days as the nerve center of the Jewish calendar – for while it represents a relatively small portion of the time-cycle, its effect over the coming year is both powerful and immeasurable. It was a time for personal introspection and prayer; for putting ones’ spiritual house in order. Many of us reflected not only on where we’ve been, but where we’re going. What impact we as individuals wish to make; what might our legacy be. Often, we consider the larger directional changes we sometimes find ourselves taking.

As we begin 5771, let us hope that perhaps somewhere out there a few visionaries are waiting. The opportunities are endless; the challenge both difficult and important.

Is there anyone out there who can measure up to the task?

Dan Brown is the founder of eJewishPhilanthropy.com.
A version of this article appeared in The Jerusalem Report.