| Lonely at the Top |

Scared to Shine

The leadership vacuum that should be worrying us all. Three takes on a troubling trend

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Prestigious titles, with the opportunity to change the world and, in many cases, take home a decent salary too.

So why are there so many openings? If we’re producing hundreds, even thousands, of amazing rebbeim and moros,  then why don’t we have people ready to soar to the very top positions?

In the army, a sergeant becomes a major, then a lieutenant colonel, and eventually a brigadier general. In sports, athletes labor at the Double-A level to make it to Triple-A, from where they hope to make the major leagues.

Why are we seeing our Triple-A filled with stars while the major league has vacancies?

In communal life, it’s not much different. Some of the major Klal Yisrael organizations have leadership openings at the top, and even more intriguingly, they are head-hunting potential candidates — this while your neighborhood, shul or community has gifted, talented, dedicated, effective askanim for the taking.

It’s presumptuous for me to speculate about the reason, and I have no hard data to back this up, but read any opinion columnist in any publication, and clearly, presumptuousness and lack of data are qualifications for the role.

Here we go: I think we’re killing away talent. I think people are scared to rise to the top.

And so before they ever reach the majors, they’ve learned to lie low, to swallow creativity — and most of all, to smile and make nice with everyone.

I think we’re making it hard for anyone too original, too fresh, or too different to keep rising. Our potential stars have learned that it’s just not worth shining, because you might outshine the wrong person.

It’s quite the accusation from someone not in the chinuch system, but

  1. a) In fact, I was in the system. Not gonna tell you why I’m not anymore, lol.
  2. b) I’ve had this conversation with several active rebbeim and menahelim, and, after looking around nervously to make sure I wasn’t mic’ed up, they confirmed this.
  3. c) It’s not only chinuch, it’s nearly every framework that isn’t commercial. In a business, the boss doesn’t care how brash, innovative or prominent the employee or salesman is, because what counts is the bottom line, not ego.

A very respected rav of the previous generation was once offered a “dream job” as rosh yeshivah in a chassidish yeshivah. It was a long-awaited opportunity to exchange shul politics and sparsely attended shiurim for a vibrant group of enthusiastic young talmidim. He was eager to accept the position, and shared the good news with Rav Shmelka Taubenfeld, the gaon of Monsey, who suggested he think twice.

“Look,” said Rav Shmelka, with dry Galician irony, “if you don’t do a good job, you will be out in six months. And if you do succeed,” Rav Shmelka cautioned, “then you will be out in three.”

In so many areas of chinuch and klal life, the areas where the stakes are highest and bottom line is most important, we are seeing survival of the most mediocre — of those blessed with the diplomatic skills to keep their heads down following the career path to success, while others fall apart.

A friend of mine got a job at a national chesed organization, charged with overseeing its development in a particular community. He raised so much money that he outraised the central office and its longtime CEO, and some of the older board members came to have a talk with him. Settle down, you don’t want to offend anyone, you know, take it slow.

Last summer, I overheard an eager young rebbi talking about his dreams and aspirations. “You’re a star,” someone commented, and his face darkened.

“I know that I could be a star,” he said, “but I’m waiting for the day that I won’t have to hide my charisma like it’s a skin disease.”

So what’s the eitzah?

It starts at the top. We need leaders who, along with being passionate, committed, and focused, can work on inspiring not just the masses, but also those who share office space with them.

Let them be. Let them try it their way. Let them be bold and different, even if it means you’re cringing inside. Maybe it’s what the world needs.

“The way we’ve always done it” is a value when it comes to mesorah, halachah, and minhag, but it’s not an educational or communal leadership philosophy.

But because we are a people of mesorah, we resist change — and sometimes, we use that as a handy excuse when really our opposition doesn’t stem from valid worries about tradition but rather from a fear that the proposed change threatens us in some way. (If that works, and I don’t know how to do it, what does it mean for me?) It impacts all of us, in any industry, but if you’re in chinuch (or, to a lesser degree, in klal life), the choices you make — and the ideas you turn down — are dinei nefashos.

The only way to create a flow of talent upward is to encourage talented people, even when their ideas aren’t perfect or haven’t been shown to work. And if they do work? Take a deep breath, realize that it doesn’t mean the way you’ve been doing it is obsolete, and let them fly. Maybe they will mess up, but then they will try again, because they got the message that it’s worth trying.

(I am grateful to work for a publication that welcomes new ideas, new talent, and new initiatives. Become great, is the message, as long as you don’t expect a raise. Just kidding. Maybe.)

I learned in the Mir during the glory years of Rav Nosson Tzvi. Every month, it seemed, another capable yungerman had been installed in one of the rooms of the local shtiblach as a maggid shiur. The rosh yeshivah didn’t just open the beis medrash doors to talmidim, but to rebbeim as well. You think you have what it takes? You want to teach Torah? Sure!

That was his message and while not all of them remained in the Mir, most of those empowered young men went on to positions of prominence in harbatzas Torah.

It was the vision of a man who wasn’t scared to share.

And the success of his vision carries a message too: If you empower the people around you to be great, not only will they not outshine you, your light will shine ever brighter.

Now would be the perfect time to start. There’s a new school year around the corner and still some vacancies at the very top. There are many qualified candidates; they just don’t know it yet.

It’s time to set them free.


Yisroel Besser is a deputy editor of this magazine and author of several books.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 868)

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