Leadership Limmud: Rosh Hashanah and Reflection

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Leadership Limmud is a bi-weekly blog post by the Schusterman Family Foundation Leadership and Talent team. It blends traditional Torah commentary with contemporary leadership lessons linked to that week's Torah parsha or upcoming holiday. We hope you enjoy!

Rosh Hashanah Summary: Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the universe, the anniversary of God creating Adam and Eve and therefore celebrated as the head of the Jewish year. According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life and we take time to reflect on our past year. We are supposed to recognize our mistakes and successes, start making amends to those we have wronged and set intentions for the upcoming year. It is a day(s) of prayer, a time when we ask God to bless us with a year of peace, prosperity and happiness.

The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram's horn. The shofar itself symbolizes the Binding of Isaac, an event that occurred on Rosh Hashanah. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and he was prepared to do so. At the last second, an angel instead moved a ram in the place of Isaac, as Abraham's offering to God. The shofar blast serves as a wake-up call to remind us of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The sound carries the message of the Jewish people's sacrifices, hope and continuity throughout history. It's piercing cry also represents a call to repentance.

While Rosh Hashanah is regarded as the head of the year, it is not technically the beginning of the year according to the Tanach (Bible). The holiday actually represents the anniversary of creation, specifically God's role in the inauguration of humankind, the creation of Adam and Eve.

Commentary: As discussed above, Rosh Hashanah holds many different meanings, but the most underrated may be the thought of reserving these two days as a reminder of the creation of the world and humankind. One may take this as a lesson in creativity and an opportunity to start new things, but it may actually offer an entirely different message. This message is one of reflection and renewal, as it was not humans who created the world from nothing. Rather, it was God who made something from nothing and gave humans the ability to reflect and react to that creation.

The idea of the creation story representing a lesson in renewal comes from Elie Wiesel when he writes, “It is not given to man to begin; that privilege is God's alone. But it is given to man to begin again”. Rosh Hashanah reminds us that we do not need to constantly create, but that we need to invest our time in reflection and renewal.

The Rambam argues that Rosh Hashanah is about how we should invest our time as the shofar calls us to self-reflect. This reflection links us back to Adam and Eve, as each year we should determine how we want to “begin again”, instead of trying to do the impossible of starting anew.

Let's get down to Tachlis (nuts and bolts): Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the universe and head of the Jewish year, as it celebrates the anniversary of God creating Adam and Eve. This year, those celebrating should focus on the holiday's message of reflection and renewal and how these lessons can tie us back to God's creation of humankind.

What this means for leaders: In the spirit of creation, reflection and renewal, we want to share a study from The Harvard Business Review. The researchers found that a short period of mindfulness training can positively stimulate creative output, and individuals that spent just ten minutes of meditating significantly increased their ability to brainstorm creative solutions. Furthermore, groups that meditated were 121 percent more likely to build on the ideas of others, leading to an idea or solution that never would have been found. Additional research highlights that people who practice mindfulness have more cognitive flexibility, are able to see beyond what they're already done and are better at solving problems requiring insight.

This research clearly indicates that to cultivate a culture of curiosity and creativity, there needs to be a stronger focus on employees' mindsets and encouraged opportunities to practice mindfulness. To further integrate mindfulness techniques into the office space, a leader could:

  • Connect mindfulness to office values. This demonstrates a deliberate intention to develop a culture that embraces mindfulness by connecting it to workplace values.
  • Create office-based mindfulness programs. Offer employees the opportunity to receive trainings in mindfulness practices and clearly explain how to apply benefits to their daily lives.
  • Supplement in-house leadership development programs. Include mindfulness in regular leadership development training programs.
  • Allow for mindful moments. Offer employees the opportunity to slow things down, take a deep breath and approach a project with a fresh set of eyes. Consider opening a meeting with a mindfulness component.
  • Provide proper resources. Create accessible options for employees who seek to develop their mindfulness practice.

Harry Kraemer, clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School, writes in Kellogg Insight that self-reflection makes for stronger, more-efficient leaders. When things get rough, many leaders think that the only way out is to do more, but he writes that this may just be “mistaking activity for productivity...and productivity demands self-reflection”. These actions are about refocusing on your personal values and making yourself and your organization better. Self-reflection can improve leaders in the following three ways:

  • Analyzing your values and priorities. Taking time to think about how your and your team's actions fit with the organization's values and priorities gives a leader the ability to realign those actions.
  • Reducing surprises through preparation. Self-reflection allows a leader to think about anything that could happen, so that when those things do occur, they have already thought about it and have prepared themselves and their team.
  • Increasing the abilities of your team. A good leader does not reserve self-reflection time solely for themselves. This should be expanded to all team members so they can reap the benefits. If self-reflection leads to stronger leaders, then it can also be used to mold stronger team members.