Ilisa is Prizmah's Senior Vice President of Engagement

The Not So Secret Ingredient to Jewish Day School Board Leadership

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation (virtually, of course) with Rabba Daniella Pressner, head of school at the Akiva School in Nashville, TN and Moshe Werthan, board member at the Akiva School, together with Dr. Alex Pomson, principal and managing director of Rosov Consulting. We drew upon Prizmah’s recent study of lay leadership in Jewish day schools to highlight contexts and trends in the field and discussed the challenges and successes their board has seen. They shared about the ways they’ve intentionally developed their board culture over time and their work offers insights into the foundation of trust as a lever for success in the work of day school leaders. You can listen to a podcast of this conversation here.

What struck me most during this engaging discussion was the self-awareness both Rabba Pressner and Moshe brought to their work and how this particular disposition, this consciousness of one's thoughts, behaviors and tendencies, impacted on their work with others on the board and, in particular, on their relationship with one another. This self-awareness on both sides is an often overlooked strength that fuels the success they have experienced in the work and has been the salve that nurtured their ability to navigate challenges. The literature on governance and leadership affirms what we know intuitively to be true: self-awareness is critical to strong leadership.

In his article 5 Ways to Become More Self-Aware, Anthony K. Tjan writes, "[Self awareness] lies at the root of strong character, giving us the ability to lead with a sense of purpose, authenticity, openness, and trust. It explains our successes and our failures. And by giving us a better understanding of who we are, self-awareness lets us better understand what we need most from other people, to complement our own deficiencies in leadership."

What feels important about self-awareness, specifically as it relates to the work on the board, is the way it fuels our capacity to have healthy relationships, productive discussions and strong teams as we understand how we work best and how that knowledge can help us in working with others.

And, the really good news is that we believe that every lay and professional leader can take a step right now to strengthen their leadership. We know this work on developing one's capacity to lead with self-awareness is core to the work of the board as well as integral to good governance. In addition to identifying the systems, structures and culture we want to develop on our board, we need to look within and grow our capacity to know ourselves and the ways in which we show up in our work and our lives.

Harvard Business Review author Tasha Eurich’s research shows that even though most people believe they are self-aware, it is a truly rare quality: She estimates that only 10%–15% of the people studied actually fit the criteria.

Here are four steps you can take to start cultivating self-awareness in the boardroom for yourself and others:

  1. Reach out to a fellow board member you trust and/or to your head of school and ask for feedback. None of us are fully aware of how we come across to others--in fact, the higher you are in the organization chart, the less honest feedback you are likely to receive. Lean on a trusted board member to share an honest, candid and objective perspective.
  2. Write down your key plans and priorities. One of the best ways to increase self-awareness is to write down what you want to do and track your progress.
  3. Set a personal leadership goal for your work on the board. What is one commitment you are prepared to make for how you show up in your work on the board? Are you willing to share that goal with another trusted board member who can help you remain committed? It may be as simple as “I will work on listening with an open mind to others with whom I disagree.” Even simply setting the intention of listening can have an impact on how you listen when others speak.
  4. Utilize board member self-assessments.

This is deep and challenging work that may push us out of our comfort zone and challenge us to behave differently. Just as fundraising, proper onboarding and reviewing budgets are all important areas of work for boards, so too is becoming more self-aware. In fact, we believe that the ability to develop one’s capacity to lead through intentional work on managing and growing in our own awareness of our strengths and the areas in which we need support can make the difference between good and great boards.

While we don’t have much control over many things in our lives these days, we do have control over our own actions and behaviors. We do not need to wait for a training session nor invest in expensive resources. We can all start right now to shift and grow our practice--all it requires is a shift in our mindset.