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3 Leadership Competencies for Making Sustainable Change

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Countless books and seminars treat leadership as a cookie-cutter set of hard skills like time management and writing strategic plans. They focus on productivity techniques, promising leaders that they can be more effective by simply following a few steps. But, my experience working with over 160 Jewish executive-level leaders over the past seven years has shown me that authentic leadership is much more than hard skills we have and the outcomes we achieve.

It is also about our personal capacity for growth and transformation.

Since launching the Schusterman Fellowship in 2015, this leadership philosophy has served as the heart of our curriculum supporting leaders building Jewish nonprofits and civil society. To better articulate this philosophy, we recently created a model defining three competencies we believe all leaders should practice and embrace: Leading Self, Leading Others and Leading Systems. Undergirding these competencies is the need to make leadership sustainable so that all leaders operate at a pace and scale that can be maintained, making space for rest and celebrating what is working.

By practicing our three leadership competencies, Schusterman Fellows are better equipped to drive meaningful change on today’s most pressing issues. We are proud of the success we have seen with this model and believe these competencies can be useful to leaders across sectors, industries and roles. Below, we will define the competencies, share examples of how we’ve seen them in action and suggest ways to practice them.


1. Leading Self

Every individual has a unique set of talents and a perspective on the world that no one else holds. Leading Self happens when we tap into these gifts to build resiliency and self-awareness, growing our capacity for making effective, long-term change.

This means knowing ourselves well enough to accurately judge our own strengths and weaknesses, understanding how our emotions and identities affect ourselves and others, and identifying what we need to take care of ourselves. It’s a process of honest, gentle inquiry that helps us develop resilience and focus to operate as our full, authentic selves.

In the Schusterman Fellowship, we often talk about Leading Self in four domains—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. When our last cohort shifted to an all-virtual program at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we knew we needed to counter the added screen time with attention to our physical wellbeing. We began closing each Fellowship call with a one-song virtual dance party.

These few moments of connection, motion and joy were a meaningful reminder that even small doses of Leading Self can build resilience.

Ideas for practicing Leading Self:

  • For one week, take two minutes each day to observe and note where and when you feel most energized. Then, take two minutes each day the next week to try a tiny practice inspired by what you find out. It might be a short meditation or breathing practice, jumping jacks, reading a poem or spiritual text, or journaling.
     
  • Collect honest feedback from others about your leadership styles and habits. Schusterman Fellows conduct a formal 360-degree leadership assessment, but you can simply ask a small handful of your peers, direct reports or supervisors to describe you in five words. You can also approach them with curiosity and ask questions like:
    • When do you see me operating at my best?
    • What would you always come to me for?
    • If you could tell me to take one thing off my plate and delegate it to someone else, what would it be?
       
  • Ritualize joy and movement during your workday, like we did with virtual dance parties, to reconnect with your own humanity and build resilience.


2. Leading Others

Leading Others is where our understanding of ourselves meets the real world. How do our leadership strengths and growth areas impact those around us and our ability to mobilize others toward a common goal?

Practicing Leading Others requires each of us to assess our own privilege or oppression and implicit biases, as well as being willing to shift our thinking and actions. During the Schusterman Fellowship, we teach Fellows that the most effective leaders don’t think of themselves at the top of a hierarchy, but instead are able to listen to and value multiple perspectives. They are humble and collaborative, knowing when to practice tzimtzum, the Jewish concept of making space for others to lead.

For me, Leading Self has meant acknowledging that even though I am a non-Jewish person working in the Jewish sector, my whiteness and leadership position with the Schusterman Fellowship have afforded me the comfort of never feeling unwelcome or out of place in a Jewish space. After hearing from many Jews of color who struggle to find belonging in their own Jewish communities and from Fellows who felt unseen or unheard in our program, I have realized that I need to work to prevent experiences of inequity and exclusion. I am committed to doing so within the Fellowship and use my role to encourage our Fellows to prioritize ensuring that all Jews feel a sense of belonging and have the resources and supports they need to thrive in their organizations and communities.

Ideas for practicing Leading Others:

  • Consider the ways in which your community is—and isn’t—creating a sense of belonging for all. Ask for a conversation with those who have been hurt or excluded. Listen and seek to understand what you might do differently. Then, apply their recommendations and ask for feedback as you change policies and practices going forward.
     
  • If you have been hurt or excluded, first, take care of yourself and seek support from trusted sources. Then, find someone in the community with whom you can have an honest conversation about your experience, and work with them to be a force of positive change.
     
  • Learn about the drama triangle. Consider how you might approach situations from a stance of empowerment and how you can encourage and support those you lead to do the same.


3. Leading Systems

Effective leaders must think beyond their individual organizations and focus on influencing and transforming the institutions that impact our lives. Leading Systems is how we harness our unique talents and vision to system-wide, lasting change.

This, of course, is easier said than done. Systems, institutions and traditions can be frustratingly slow to change. It’s easy to see the appeal of inaction (resigning ourselves to the ways things are) or giving in to our current culture of contempt (dehumanizing and shutting down those with whom we disagree).

Neither of these paths will affect needed change. During this time of increased polarization, we need to break out of our echo chambers and work with those who share our goals but may disagree with us about how to reach them. It takes real effort to foster this type of collaboration, especially when engaging across difference is not always socially rewarded.

That is why the Schusterman Fellowship recently piloted a new curriculum teaching Fellows how to engage in conversations across lines of difference and hear perspectives that challenge their beliefs. We invite our Fellows, who come from a range of backgrounds and hold varied ideological and political viewpoints, to engage with and facilitate productive discussions around complex issues so they are equipped to do so in their organizations and communities.

Many of our Fellows are doing exceptional work collaborating with wide coalitions to lead systems toward change. Ilana Kaufman, Executive Director of the Jews of Color Initiative, has established a groundbreaking body of data that is changing the way people understand who makes up the U.S. Jewish community and is advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color. Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO of OLAM, is leading a network of 60+ Jewish and Israeli organizations working in the fields of global service, international development, and humanitarian aid to take meaningful action in supporting vulnerable communities across the globe.

Ideas for practicing Leading Systems:

  • Read or listen to an op-ed or news story from a source you disagree with and approach the piece with the goal of understanding the author or reporter’s perspective. This practice can help us humanize voices we might otherwise dismiss outright and lead us to build broader coalitions toward shared goals.
     
  • Challenge your assumptions about the people and systems you work with and think about why things are done the way they are using the ladder of inference.

When leaders know themselves well, genuinely collaborate with others and orient themselves toward systems thinking, conditions for real, sustainable change emerge. By practicing these three leadership competencies and focusing on leadership as a way of being, each of us can activate the tools within ourselves to bring our visions of a better world to life.

Colleen Cruikshank is the Director of the Schusterman Fellowship at Schusterman Family Philanthropies.