Portraits of Leadership

I offer two examples of those from whom I have learned effective leadership, beginning with one of my first leaders and teachers, my father. A leader must possess two traits, a clear vision of principles and the ability to communicate and teach them. When my three sisters and I were growing up my father had little time for us-he left the house in darkness and it was dark again when he returned-yet each of us felt important to and cherished by him.

Credit my father or the family dog as responsible for our security. Every few months he’d call to one of us, “Come with me while I walk Skippy.” So we’d grab a coat and catch up with him, happy to have been chosen. He’d listen on the walk, drawing on his Camel and nodding, giving the sense of full attention. He didn’t correct, criticize, or advise very much. Mostly he encouraged not only with his words, but simply by regularly finding time for us, caring about what we were doing with our lives. Leaders often resemble parents. The leader or parent who is too laissez-faire often corrects by being over-stringent. Parents walk a line between knowing little about their children’s lives and attempting to control their fates. My father managed to be concerned and supportive of us, yet we knew we each had our own journey to travel: Whatever honor or shame I created was my own. (I speak of a time of young adulthood here.)

At the same time, he gave us a feeling that we belonged to something, we were a team. He called us “the gang.” The four of us sat in the back seat of the spacious Oldsmobile, my father and stepmother in the front, all of us glad to be together. How did we get to feel that way and know it? Because my father was expressive. When he said, “My four daughters” we heard the pride, love, and gratitude in his voice. By making us a family, two children each from each parent, he gave us identity and a model for our futures. Like all good leaders, he turned us into leaders. We all grew up and raised our own families.

While my father didn’t give much direction to us, he didn’t raise us with a roll your-own set of values or lifestyle either. The reprimand came when deemed necessary, and it was not milk and cookies. The father of love shifted quickly into the father of awe. Within inches of my face, his blood vessels prominent on his forehead, I’d wait for the inevitable question: “What did you do wrong?” And then I’d deliver the right answer: “I didn’t think, Daddy.” In a Jewish home, not thinking was unthinkable. He’d then take a breath and say, “So it won’t happen again.”

He couldn’t stand our being stupid and he couldn’t stand our being selfish. The house became the laboratory for how we treated others. In my sarcastic adolescence I once proclaimed at dinner, “Here’s how to get a glass of milk around here. Don’t go and pour it. That’s too simple. First ask whoever is with you if they’d like a glass of milk. Then they answer and ask you if you’d like one.” My father didn’t laugh; where I came from, menschlekeit was no joke.

We also learned the importance of having an organizing principle in our lives, a way to acknowledge what was most sovereign. All human beings are supposed to be helpful to each other, but we have different claims on each other. My father was a good ear to many young people, but I had a special claim as his daughter. Our family relationships put obligation on us but also benefit. We learned that we couldn’t take care of every needy one who crossed our path, that we had responsibility first to our family. This taught us loyalty as well as organization, and it made clear what was expected of us as members of the family.

Dinners were usually homilies, lessons, and lectures by my father. He told us about his day as instructions for living. The lessons were black and white moral documents–is it any surprise I like Torah?–always illustrated by some buffoon who said or did the wrong thing. Here my father was the autocrat who couldn’t be interrupted or disagreed with. At this time of day he was tired and least effective as leader, but he still wasn’t wasting his time with us as people in need of guidance. He never stopped being Dad, and for the sense of security this gave us, we forgave him his cranky bossiness, his occasional dictatorial streak, and short temper. A good leader doesn’t have to be perfect–consistent effectiveness buys good will currency for shortcomings.

My father did more than talk about what was expected of us, he demonstrated it. He would say, “You catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.” One evening we were at the 1964 World’s Fair, our favorite place to go that summer. It was crowded and my father asked the four of us to save a table while he stood on line to order food. A couple with three little kids saw us spreading ourselves out to save six places and sat down, taking the two extra seats we needed. They had no food yet but wanted to stake out their place. Nothing we could say, plead, or shout budged them. My father returned, overflowing tray in hand, and seeing our angry, exasperated faces, quickly assessed the situation. “Would you mind letting us sit while we eat?” he asked. They did not respond. We waited tensely. What would the honey man do now?

“Come on girls,” he said in the sweetest voice, “Let’s just stand by and let these animals have the table.” The man jerked his head up, glowering, his children and wife looking at him to act. He was over two hundred pounds, my father five foot four inches. Surrounding their table we took my father’s cue and smiled at them like were Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” I was happy. My father made a chump of this guy and his family, and I was frankly into winning. Now I know it was more than that. My father demonstrated peaceful resistance as an effective tool and showed that he walked his own talk. It’s one thing to say it’s better to avoid confrontation if you can but it’s another thing not to let the anger fly out of your mouth in reaction.

My second model for leadership is Rabbi Harold Schulweis. The rabbi is about my father’s age and similar in demonstrating strong, perhaps patriarchal leadership unashamedly, but I’ve seen a change in his style that has taught me to expand my vision of leadership. Schulweis still runs an old-time synagogue, with a strong rabbi who leads everyone: cantor, board, school directors, and clerical staff. When you walk into Valley Beth Shalom, the place buzzes and hums just like the Type A person in charge of operations. Everyone there moves fast in the Southern California sun; it has the action of a busy corporation or film studio.

Schulweis has been at VBS for twenty five years, transforming a “killer congregation” into a leading spiritual center. For most of those years, there was fair turnover of cantors and assistant rabbis; often choosing perfectly nice but non-charismatic types, he demanded of them what he demanded of himself and those who were unwilling to give up their family life left. When Schulweis alternated the bima with his assistant rabbi, it was embarrassing&emdash;700 came one week, 100 the next. A few years ago, increasing age and declining health became a good teacher. He had to find a successor and build infrastructure to keep the institution alive. The gift and the curse always come together. In this leader’s case, it was in the form of ego. For years his ego may have kept him from choosing someone of his power to work with him, but now, his wish to perpetuate and preserve his good work motivated him to find a solution.

He recently said, “It took me twenty five years in the rabbinate to realize what my job was&emdash;to bring forth creativity in others and to be myself and let people know me.” He was always a great rabbi, because even if he wasn’t conscious of his inherent intention, it is what he has always practiced and what has always been his strength. It may have taken him a long time to learn how to delegate, but the very fact that he has allowed a congregation to watch his process of growth is demonstration not only of his ability to change but his generosity of spirit. He is a leader because we look at him and say, “My God, if Harold goes through this stuff, it’s O.K. for me, too.” Not that there are many like him in any generation, but many find identification with a leader who is not afraid to reveal human frailty.

What I’ve learned from him is ahavat Yisrael. He loves his Judaism and he loves its people. When you talk to Schulweis there is no one else in the world for him than you at that moment. He communicates deep interest and caring that cannot be faked; love does not overstate his feeling, because his theology requires two of us to be together to make a place for God to dwell. Like my father, he walks the talk.

I wish I had a woman to model but in truth, I’ve worked in very few places, have avoided meetings and boards, and therefore regretfully have a narrow group to survey. The two I have chosen to profile in this essay are admirable to me because they are authentic. They are true leaders because they believe in their lives and yet they don’t claim ownership of their wisdom. They are worthy guides because their leadership is organic and natural. They recognize that they have responsibility with their gifts, obligation to lead others to their own strengths. They have sufficient confidence to know they can lead and sufficient responsibility to know that they must.