What Synagogue Leaders Need To Know About Adapting To Change

Inside Leadership

What Synagogue Leaders Need To Know About Adapting To Change

Dr. Ronald Heifetz is the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates. He’s  the author of multiple books on leadership-related topics, including Leadership Without Easy Answers, Leadership on the Line, and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization. I met Ronald in 1971 on the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem, when his interests centered on Israel, cello, and medicine. He went on to become a student of the Russian virtuoso Gregor Piatigorsky – as well as a physician and a world-renowned expert on leadership.

ReformJudaism.org: What must every leader know about effecting institutional change?

Dr. Ronald Heifetz: Leaders need to distinguish between technical and adaptive solutions. The first can be implemented by current know-how. Adaptive solutions, on the other hand, require the shedding of entrenched priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.

For example, Ruth, 95, was living alone and still driving when her son began noticing new scrapes on her car. What was the remedy? The technical change was to fix the scrapes by taking the car to experts at the body shop. But below the surface was an adaptive challenge: Ruth was the only one of her contemporaries who was still driving, and doing so was a source of enormous pride and convenience for her, enabling her to function as an independent person. For her to stop driving required a momentous adaptation. The technical part was easier: having to pay for cabs, asking other people to drive her places, and so forth. The underlying adaptive challenge was for her to refashion her identity and find ways to thrive within new constraints.

How do technical and adaptive solutions play out in a synagogue setting?

In synagogues, many challenges can be addressed through technical problem-solving, such as raising funds for a new building, hiring an architect to design it, cleaning up financial operations. These remedies are within the repertoire of the organization’s known capacities.

Challenges for which there are no expert solutions to pull off any shelf – such as how to bring alienated Jews into the Reform community and make congregational life more meaningful to people – require adaptive work.

A strength of Reform Judaism has always been its devotion to being a living, adaptive organism. But over time, even adaptive organisms develop their own culture and traditions.

The adaptive work here is the very difficult task of figuring out what to conserve from the tradition that is precious and essential, what to discard, and what innovations will facilitate taking the very best of your history into the future. The process of deliberation can be emotionally charged and laden with conflict, because different people will have different views on what’s precious and what’s expendable.

You have to listen carefully, because if you’re going to challenge each person to change, you have to articulate in a respectful and compassionate way what it is you’re asking this person to give up. Leadership would be an easy enterprise if it were all about gains – but it rarely is.

As adaptive change involves real losses, the best approach is to go into it thinking that your objective is more to protect what people value most than to change what they already have. Strive to reawaken in people the values you’re going to conserve. Change is much more palatable when people realize it is being done to preserve what they love.

How do good adaptive leaders navigate conflicting viewpoints they are going to encounter when discussing what is expendable?

They say to the group, “Listen, there’s wisdom in all of your points of view, but all of your points of view cannot prevail in their current form, so something’s got to give. Progress is going to require compromise. Each person may be right, but sometimes only 80% right. We’ve got to take advantage of the wisdom of each of our points of view.” As you go around the table, people begin to realize, “Wow, we’re all right, but we’re not all 100% right. Now let’s figure out what’s really essential and what is negotiable in each of our points of view, so we can hold together as a community.” You follow this by trying out different solutions.

The most effective way to institute adaptive change is to actively commit to an intervention you’ve designed while also not letting yourself become wedded to it – so if it misses the mark, you don’t feel compelled to defend it. You have to believe that your invention is absolutely the right thing to do at the moment you commit to it – while simultaneously remaining open to the possibility that you are dead wrong. An adaptive mindset opens you up to that great unanticipated possibility.

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Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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