Facing the Challenges of Collaborative Leadership
Collaborative leadership has great potential to help elevate Jewish day schools. It is grounded in our traditions of questioning, wrestling with issues, and considering alternative perspectives. In practice, it involves a leader who empowers others to play substantive roles in planning programs and events, in decision-making about issues of import to the school, and in visioning for the school’s future. The collaborative leader guides others to move efficiently through their processes of conceiving, brainstorming and formulating, from start to finish.
If collaborative leadership is to be adopted more widely in our schools, there’s a crucial question that needs to be answered: Why are some leaders resistant to it?
Starting Out: Patience and Courage
Collaborative leadership takes time and patience. Given the hectic pace of school life, it requires resolve and discipline to guide a group process. It’s hard to lead collaboratively when a unilateral decision is quicker: checking a task off a long list and moving on. Collaborative leadership also puts a leader in the position of facing disagreement and conflict. There’s no hiding from it. If a group process is going to be worthwhile, a leader must deal with discontent.
Truth be told, a leader is bound to grapple with any number of fears when considering a collaborative approach. What if it takes too long? What if personality styles or groups norms are difficult to manage? What if it doesn’t go well and the leader is viewed as a failure? What if people in the school perceive the leader as weak or unable to take charge? If the leader cedes control, will she or he ever be able to regain it?
Repairing the Self: Tikkun Atzmi
After moving beyond the initial hurdles, a leader needs to be prepared for deeper self-examination in order to be responsive to the challenges to come. Before engaging in tikkun olam (repairing the world), one should first engage in tikkun atzmi (repairing the self). The expression tikkun atzmi can be traced to the beginning of Pirkei Avot: “The world rests on three things, torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim” (1:2)—where avodah refers to the work to be done in the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, this dictum broadened, and came to include spiritual work—tikkun atzmi. Spiritual work, looking at oneself honestly and even critically, is invaluable for engaging with others and facilitating collaborative processes.
Balancing Risk and Reward
Jumping in the deep end, even if the water’s cold and a bit murky, may bring a multitude of benefits to leaders and their schools. When members of a collaborative group participate in the decision to take a specific course of action, they feel ownership of that course of action and are more likely to take initiative for implementing it. Having worked through problems and conflicts together, members of a group come to trust one another for the sake of the current initiative and for the future. Garnering and utilizing the wisdom, insight and experience of a number of individuals is advantageous to the school. Members of a collaborative group think through problems, voice opinions, suggest solutions, imagine and predict outcomes, and follow through with plans. Those who excel in the various stages of group work may be tapped for leadership (or additional leadership) in the school.
Curbing the Ego
The collaborative leader must be prepared to put the ego aside, let others voice their ideas and thought processes, and even shift her/his own thinking on topics at hand. For the leader, this requires self-awareness, metacognition and emotional hardiness. The goal is for the leader to selflessly guide group processes to outcomes that are consistent with the mission, vision and values of the school and that help the school reach ever higher levels of excellence.
Harnessing the Power of Listening
True, sustained, deep listening is difficult in any context. As the facilitator of a group process, the leader needs to maintain heightened focus on what’s being said by everyone. No thinking about the chaggim or dinner plans. This is definitely not the time for the leader to check emails or text messages. Full focus on what’s being discussed is necessary as the leader needs to assess the perspectives of individual group members. When an individual with a particular perspective or belief is subtly (or not so subtly) clinging to a position, and doing so is counterproductive to the group’s process, that’s the leader’s cue to intervene. By the same token, when an individual makes a contribution that is especially insightful and additive, the leader may jump in and ensure that the train of thought is allowed to evolve.
Connecting to Larger Purposes
Yet another challenge for the collaborative leader is to connect group discussions to the school’s larger purposes. The good news is that there is no shortage of larger purposes—development of Jewish identity, connection to the State of Israel, exhibiting and internalizing Jewish values, growing as thinkers, learning to work as a member of a team, tapping creativity, etc. But it’s not a simple matter to have a group pause and recognize the relationship of its work to one or more of these larger purposes. Not all people want to be reflective. Faced with potential resistance, the leader can easily rationalize that the connection to a larger purpose of the school is obvious, leaving no need to mention it. Indeed, it should be mentioned. Bringing forth big ideas solidifies a group’s work, creates a sense of cohesiveness in a school, and enhances overall respect for the leader.
Holding the Key
While collaborative leadership is a promising option in many situations, there are times when a more directive leadership approach is clearly necessary (in crisis situations; with sensitive personnel issues; when parent or community interface is delicate), and there is a certain amount of directive leadership that provides comfort to members of a faculty and administration. More often than not, it’s up to the leader to choose a directive or collaborative approach. This choice, made wisely over time, is undoubtedly a key factor in a leader’s success. There may be some who came to one of these decisions for the first time with extraordinary prescience, but for most, navigating these waters comes with time and experience. And trial and error. Having developed the capacity to proceed with informed and sound judgment, despite potential difficulties, the leader’s actions are sure to benefit the school, the community, and our world.