Still blogging the New Israel Forum….

This title of this post was the title of a session I attended, with a wonderful panel of experts:

  • Shifra Bronzwick, of Advancing Women Professionals in the Jewish Community
  • Rachel Liel of Shatil (NIF’s nonprofit capacity building center in Israel)
  • Fathi Marshood, who works for Shatil in the north of Israel, esp. within the Palestinian Israeli community
  • Naomi Chazan, former MK and currently head of the NIF in Israel was the moderator.

The conversation started with a focus on what leadership is, how one acquires it, and how it can be promoted. It was clear that the panelists saw leaders as particular kinds of people, and not leadership as a particular skill or quality that can be passed on en masse. The speakers have all played a role in promoting other leaders, in helping to empower leaders from communities that are marginalized and enjoy less power relative to others.

My question was: why are you focusing on leaders and leadership as being of central importance, as opposed to organizational culture, alignment of personal behavior with organizational values, and collective leadership practices? It’s not that leadership isn’t a worthy topic, but that it feels at times like a management fashion that – surprise, surprise – places the emphasis on the managers and on the people at the top.

In my experience, even in wonderful organizations the people with less power often experience negative consequences from the focus on leadership. Often, they and their work are devalued; they are disrespected; their rights are violated; and opportunities they could have had to make a contribution in their own name are stymied. There can only be so many leaders; what about all the others? Is their fulfillment in following the vision of those leaders?

Rachel Liel helped find some middle ground. When we talk about ‘leadership’ we are talking about those behaviors which will result in higher morale inside an organization. Shifra said that the hallmark of true leaders is their listening skills. (I remember being ‘listened at’ – it’s a mixed bag…) She also came up to me and suggested looking at reports from the Movement Building Project housed at Demos about the changing of the guard in organizations.

I remember supporting the Situationist sentiment that ‘artists are not particular kinds of people, all people are particular kinds of artists.’ By the same token we need to adopt the idea that leaders are not particular kinds of people, but rather that all people are particular kinds of leaders.

The panelists – maybe with the exception of Chazan – seem to agree. But there is a bias in how this conversation gets communicated that supports an individualistic interpretation.

Shifra ended on a great note. All of us can challenge our own organizations to be better. Ask for more open and public expression of other voices in those organizations; don’t let it slide when it’s only the donors or top staff that get heard and recognized.