What are the necessary or desirable dispositions or capacities for leaders of Jewish day schools? The list is long. A common refrain, heard particularly when a school is launching a search for a new leader, is that the head of a Jewish day school needs to be “God on a good day.” Or maybe even more than that. Whereas the Jewish tradition teaches that God is eternal and unchanging, day school leaders are often expected to be agents of positive change in their institutions.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Articles in this issue go beyond the skills and knowledge that a school leader requires, to explore the "dispositions," character traits, essential for this role. Half of the contributors currently occupy day school leadership roles; they reflect on the importance of a particular quality to their leadership style and experience. The other half are written by people engaged in training leaders, of Jewish education and beyond. Collectively, the pieces in the issue reflect part of the spectrum of personal qualities that inform the work of successful day school leadership.
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I never thought I had what it took to become a head of school. I had assumed sternness, self-assurance and detachment were requisite qualities, none of which I possessed. Then I read Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, where I learned that the most effective leaders have different qualities: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. Suddenly, what I had viewed as a liability was now considered an asset. Empathy, much to my delight, was not a weakness, but a strength.
What if the reason Moses could not lead the people into the Land of Israel was because he lacked the range necessary to lead them? Faced with the stress of the children of Israel’s water crisis and the uncertainty of its resolution, Moses resorted to his usual pattern. This paragon of Jewish leadership hit the rock rather than addressing it. Moses had become predictable.
For years, Albert Einstein’s saying “Imagination is more important than knowledge” adorned my office wall. It acted as a reminder that creativity in the classroom is critical to success. I believe that knowledge is fundamental, but what you do with that knowledge is what truly matters. I also believe that being creative is what makes us uniquely human. As Rav Soloveitchik writes in Halachic Man, “If the Torah then chose to relate to man the tale of creation, we may clearly derive one law from this manner of procedure, that man is obligated to engage in creation.”
In a Phi Delta Kappan article called “Teacher Leader,” Roland Barth, founder of the Harvard Principals’ Center, tells of an encounter with a teacher in an innovative middle school. Barth had asked the teacher whether she had any leadership responsibilities. She replied, “I’m just a teacher. If you want to talk with the leader, he’s down the hall in the principal’s office.” Barth observes, “It is alarming that the individuals so central to the learning process so often see themselves as incidental to the enterprise we call school.”
Among the many lessons I learned over the years from a variety of business experiences and from my volunteer work, one stands out: it is always better to take a long-term strategic view, assessing our community’s capabilities and the capacity of our leaders to act, to articulate a “big vision” and stick to it.
Prizmah seeks to strengthen the ecosystem of day school leadership. We believe that schools with strong lay and professional leadership are in a better position to focus on critical strategic issues facing their communities. We believe that when trust is a governing force between lay and professional teams, schools are well equipped to deal with the challenges and opportunities that come their way. We believe that leadership doesn’t have to be lonely and that there are skills, capacities and dispositions that can be learned. And we believe we can help.
From a very young age, we are told parables that teach the importance of developing trust through honesty. The boy who cried wolf too many times lost the trust of the townspeople; he wasn’t believed when his cries were genuine.
Many years ago, a friend of mine was promoted to a position of senior leadership within a large organization. When I congratulated her, she tilted her head to the side and said, “Thank you.” Her physical gesture communicated several things to me: humility, a tinge of being overwhelmed, and even a sense that she might feel undeserving of her new title. The “imposter syndrome”—the concept that some people are unable to internalize their accomplishments and persistently fear being exposed as a “fraud”—can hit hard at such moments. My friend’s body language was betraying her new position.
I didn’t know that ambition could be a dirty word until well into adulthood. I was further shocked to learn that it was a downright insult if said about a woman. On one hand, I want to put gender issues aside; on the other hand, we can never put gender issues aside. I reflect on the negative words used to describe ambition: headstrong, stubborn, opinionated, selfish. Then there are the more positive words: hungry, motivated, smart, goal-oriented.
Change can only be successfully implemented when the people involved are on board, engaged and valued. The great differentiator going forward, the place where school leaders will find a new sustainable edge, resides in conversation—the way to human connectivity. What gets talked about from the boardroom to the classroom, how it gets talked about, and who is invited to join the conversation determines what will happen or won’t.
One of the striking ideas in Jewish thought is that the capacity for speech is the most God-like attribute with which humans are endowed. This idea is expressed vividly by Targum Onkelos at the beginning of Genesis. Onkelos translates the phrase וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (Bereishit 2:7), usually translated as “and man became a living spirit,” as וַהֲוַת בְּאָדָם לְרוּחַ מְמַלְלָא, “and man became a speaking spirit.” Koach hadibbur, the power of speech, is what it means to be human.
The most exceptional boards for Jewish day schools are composed of individuals who are committed to the mission of educating youth within a religious framework. They put principles and best practices into play to ensure that they are providing strong governance for the school. The collective will of the group is dedicated not only to holding the keys to the public trust of the institution but to advancing the reach and impact of the mission.
This past November, I decided to shadow a student for an entire day, a short Friday, to see through his eyes what a typical day at our high school, Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, looked like. As teachers and administrators, we make decisions all the time that we feel are in the best interests of students, but do we really know what it’s like to be a student in our own schools? I also wanted to show where our priorities lie. Teaching and learning are obviously at the heart of our schools, but we spend far more time as administrators in our offices than in the classrooms.
Who am I, how did I get here, and where am I headed? These existential questions provide the building blocks of our internal compass. They guide our way, ground us in what really matters, and propel us to live meaningful lives. And it is these types of questions that leaders in our community need to be asking of themselves as they navigate their teams and our institutions through the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. In leadership, self-awareness is a competitive advantage.