30 November 2012
16 Kislev 5773
Leadership Without Easy Answers
As we conclude a full week back at school after the Thanksgiving break, things are humming here at Gann. Winter sports teams are gearing up for their season; our three robotics teams are busy preparing for their first regional competition; our drama club is rehearsing daily for their upcoming production; and the ninth grade is eagerly looking forward to their first Shabbaton tonight under the guidance and leadership of upper classmen.
Last night was our annual Hillel Society event, a celebratory evening of gratitude to the many members of our community who have made significant financial contributions to help sustain and grow our school. In light of what is going on in the world—the recent American elections and the looming “fiscal cliff,” the uncertainty in Egypt over their new president’s authority, and, of course, yesterday’s UN vote for nonmember observer state status for the Palestinians—it was most appropriate that our guest speaker at the Hillel event was Ron Heifetz. A parent of two Gann alumni and a former Gann trustee, Ron is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School who writes and teaches widely about leadership. When I think about the complexity of conflict, challenge, and change all over the world, I think often about one of Ron’s well-known books, Leadership Without Easy Answers.
Ron spoke about the difference between “leadership” and “authority.” “We are all familiar with people in positions of authority who do not actually lead. Conversely, many of our most significant social movements in this country are the result of people who were willing to lead without formal authority.” Especially in a democracy, leaders need to simultaneously balance the short term interests of their various constituencies while also striving to do what is right and best for the collective everyone in the long term. Ron also commented about his children’s Gann experience and shared how, through genuine dialogue with people in positions of authority, they learned that their voices matter and that they can be agents of change in their community and the world.
In my introduction of Ron, I connected “leadership without easy answers” to this week’s parsha and Jacob’s struggle with the angel, an eternal symbol of what it means to be Jewish, to be human, and to lead. In the end Jacob does not defeat the angel, nor is the angel simply willing to tell Jacob his name. The best Jacob can do is to stay in the struggle, go the distance, not give up the fight, and to emerge shalem—whole, with courage and integrity. This is what it takes to navigate a complex and changing world, intellectually and spiritually. This message has inspired Gann’s vision of Jewish pluralism and, more broadly, our approach to education, which focuses on inquiry and critical thinking, deep exploration of relevant, real world issues, and students doing the “intellectual heavy lifting.”
As the challenges we face as Jews, Americans, and citizens of the world deepen and multiply, the urgency of our Jewish educational mission is more clear to me than ever. We need more citizens and more leaders—in some cases in actual positions of authority and in most cases not—who will not settle for easy answers that feel better in the short term. We need people with enough courage, conviction, and compassion to stay in the struggle despite fear, pain, and loss, with strong core values and openness to other perspectives, with a deep sense of their particular stories and a desire to be part of the larger world, and who are willing to say and do things that are difficult and unpopular in the name of what is right and true.
May we take inspiration from Ron’s vision of leadership and Jacob’s struggle, may we live up to our name “Yisrael,” and may we and our children each find our own ways to “lead” toward a better future for our community, our country, and the world.
Rabbi Marc Baker