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Jewish Journal

Jewish leadership development: Breeding discontinuity for the greater good

by Yehuda Kurtzer

June 12, 2012 | 12:35 pm

Jewish organizations have been murmuring for several years about an impending – or possibly current – crisis in fostering leadership in the volunteer and professional ranks. The economic crisis has brought on an anxiety about fundraising even for strong organizations, the innovation sector has spawned new opportunities for engagement that diversify the paths to leadership in Jewish life, and the mainstream Jewish organizations are visibly aging in mission and message relative to the evolving marketplace.

Maybe such a crisis exists, maybe it does not; there is no repository of reliable data on the question, and so it is hard to tell whether this concern is real or is just part of the general culture of “the sky is falling” that sadly – yet inevitably – accompanies the Jewish communal conversation.

Still, let’s assume that times are in fact changing; and I’m happy to use my own organization, having undergone and still undergoing significant generational change on the lay and professional side, and now trying to address the accompanying significant sustainability challenges, as a useful indicator. There seem to be more and more competitors for the same relatively small pool of individuals, both volunteer and professional, who are interested and capable in major leadership roles in Jewish life; and accordingly, much higher expectations from our organizations to make their commitments valuable and worthwhile. This is all the good kind of pressure and the healthy way in which competition makes the field better.

Nevertheless, I sense that there is something deeply problematic in the pervasive conversation about leadership development: namely, that by ‘leadership’ our organizations are actually talking about ‘followership,’ and we have replaced ‘leading’ with ‘replicating.’ Do we want to grow or do we want to survive? To break new ground or to replace board seats? Marty Linsky and Ron Heifetz talk about leadership as a fundamentally subversive activity: it involves moving people and organizations to unprecedented places and evolving stagnant organizations along an innovation continuum. When leadership development is done in order to fill existing slots or structured roles, it suggests that we have no interest in dramatically changing our re-routing our activities; instead we are merely trying to ensure the continuity of our own ideas, or the validity of a standard way of doing business.

This helps to explain the bizarre phenomenon of the rampant critique from within the Conservative movement of the alleged ‘departure’ of the many young leaders that the movement cultivated from the congregations to the founding and running of independent minyanim. Is this new brand of leadership subversive to the institutions that breeded it? Of course! But from a leadership standpoint, that is exactly what makes it a success story. For JTS, Koach, and USY graduates to embody the values of tradition and change, and to champion liturgy, participation – and yes, leadership – means that the movement has actually been succeeding at breeding exactly the destabilizing leadership that its core values needed in order to survive in changing times.

The innovation sector, meantime, is also introducing a much flatter mechanism to breed new leaders. In Steven M. Cohen’s formulation, opportunities for leadership are becoming horizontal where they once where vertical; and in the broader culture we inhabit, this is not surprising. Engaging prospective leaders is much more likely to succeed when leaders are empowered to be producers rather than continuers.

Next week at the Israeli Presidential Conference, I am honored to share a panel with Jay Michaelson, Danya Ruttenberg, and Sha’anan Street – writers, thought-leaders and taste-makers who all model non-replicative leadership. Is it a crisis that Jay Michaelson is not in line (or – and I am guessing here – not hankering) to take over a professional role at a mainstream Jewish organization? Or is it actually a marker of success that we are creating better platforms within the Jewish community – and on this, I give the Conference great credit – to enable new leadership to change the face of Jewish life and what we assume to be its core values.

Put differently, it may be true that the field of engaged Jewish leaders and potential leaders is shrinking, and that the field of Jewish organizations needs to brace for an inevitable winnowing. On its face, not a bad thing, and one wonders whether we are overdue for a real conversation on the ethics and parameters of “Jewish organization euthanasia.” But it may also be true that the next generation of Jewish leaders are actually already here, tired of being referred to as young and simply unenthusiastic for the replicative roles they are being handed and mandates they are expected to continue. No fixed system ever welcomes change readily, much less subversive change that does not mask itself as continuity. But it may be the true cost of the leadership development business.

So here are two programmatic suggestions: First, leadership development is critical work; but if we are serious about creating more leaders and not just more followers, the work of leadership development should be about passion and inspiration with the caveat that it may produce leaders who usefully shatter the truths and practices to which our organizations are presently attached. The only way to create meaningful continuity in Jewish life and in our organizations is to breed the kind of discontinuity that addresses systemic flaws, rather than trying to patch big holes with new bodies.

And second, it is said often but deserves repeating: for Jewish organizations struggling with leadership replication, and for newer Jewish organizations struggling with recognizability, the model of mutually beneficial partnership has never been opportune. The categories of the marginal and the mainstream in Jewish life are (finally!) being challenged by new realities. While collaboration pushes big organizations out of their comfort zone to work collaboratively with new organizations promoting different methods of engagement, and pushes the nimble innovative organizations to think in terms of intra-preneurship and not just entrepreneurship, it is long overdue for both sectors to see leadership in Jewish life as a systemic challenge that requires system-wide solutions.

I had a meeting recently with a leader of a major Jewish organization, and I asked him whether he was concerned that his leadership was overwhelmingly in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and the young leadership initiative they were promoting was widely unappealing to the next generation of donors and volunteers. He shrugged his shoulders and said no: when all those young people out there who we are not attracting now eventually grow up, they will all become members of the organization and shoulder the burden of their parents and grandparents. I found this perspective completely bleak, yet refreshingly revealing. It may be that this is exactly the ‘head in the clouds’ approach that will inevitably fail, and make all sorts of new possibilities truly possible.


Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a former Visiting Assistant Professor and inaugural Chair of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University and the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (2012). He will be speaking about the next Jewish Generation alongside a panel of fellow experts at the upcoming Fourth Annual Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow 2012.

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