From Moses to modern-day heroes, stories of great Jewish leaders reveal that while the need for leadership is constant, the type of leaders needed is constantly changing. The Talmud tells us: “As the generation, so the leader; as the leader, so the generation.”
But there are lasting lessons that hold across time and place. In keeping with the Jewish tradition of transmitting wisdom and stories from generation to generation, two veritable leaders with a combined five decades of experience respond to a series of questions submitted by PresenTense readers.
Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of Israel-based SodaStream International, share stories of transitions and torpedoes, of hot dog vendors and heroes, all while speaking honestly of their failures, of cultivating leadership, and of what is most needed amongst Jewish leaders today.
Daniel Birnbaum is the CEO of SodaStream International, the Israel-based makerof home carbonation systems that offer fizzy refreshments both healthier and more environmentally friendly than their canned soda counterparts. When Daniel took over at SodaStream in 2007, it was a flat-lining business. Today, it is a formidable competitor in the billion-dollar beverage industry, with a presence in 42 countries and more than 1,400 employees worldwide. Previously, Daniel was the General Manager of Nike Israel and is responsible for bringing Pillsbury to Israel. In his spare time, Daniel, who made aliyah with his family when he was seven years old, serves as a High Holiday cantor in a congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the keynote speaker at the 2011 ROI Summit.
Talk about a time you think you failed as a leader. What happened and what did you learn? (Maya Bernstein, Palo Alto, California)
Nearly 30 years ago, as an Israeli submarine officer, my department, under my leadership, decided to invent a new protocol for launching a torpedo. The automatic launch system we were using was not working properly, so I decided to just do a manual override. But the torpedo ignited in the tube without exiting, causing damage to the Israeli Navy to the tune of just north of $100,000 and ruining a major naval exercise. My department was embarrassed, and I was admonished by a disciplinary tribunal. It was a painful experience. While having courage, taking risks, and even failing is good, it should be done intelligently. I call it failing responsibly. Importantly, I lost neither my self-confidence nor my willingness to take risks, and I learned a lesson or two in how to lead a team through ambiguity and emerge stronger, even after a crisis.
What is the most common leadership mistake you see among your colleagues, at your organization or at others? (Isaac Bernstein, Brooklyn, New York)
Risk averseness and lack of courage. Especially in corporate America, people are motivated to not make mistakes. They don’t want to get fired. They manage the status quo, so that tomorrow, not much has changed from today. If you want to create a different tomorrow, you have to roll up your sleeves, love yourself even if you fail, and give that confidence and empowerment to the people you work with.
Can leadership be learned? If so, what character traits and attitudes should we try to develop amongst Jewish children and teens to increase the likelihood that they will develop into Jewish leaders in the future? (Samantha Feinberg, Kansas City, Missouri)
Leadership is a skill that can be learned, not just a gift or an attitude. We need to seed the new generation with knowledge of Jewish heritage and tradition, creating an emotional bond as a source of motivation and purpose for emerging Jewish leaders. And we need to help young people develop role models. As a young person, I grew up in Sde Boker, near the home of David Ben Gurion, and had the opportunity to have meaningful conversations with many of his guests, such as Yitzchak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir. These great leaders were also regular people and were once young children as I was at the time. With the foundation of knowledge, the motivation of purpose, and a little self-confidence, today’s young people can take initiative in their communities and truly blossom into great leaders.
What do you hope to see in the next generation of Jewish communal leaders? (Sarah Schonberg, Washington, DC)
I hope Jewish leadership will be able to balance our responsibility as human beings to the world with the need to support Israel. Leaders must lead with the recognition that we as Jews have the responsibility to preserve our Jewish culture, heritage, and religion. It’s both a gift and an obligation. And I expect to see the type of leadership that has the courage to create change in Israel and to promote peace and tolerance, first among the fragmented Israeli society and second between Israel and her neighbors.