Lessons I Learned As a Synagogue President That Might Help Donald Trump

“Good” v. “Bad” Leaders

I am an unlikely synagogue president and Donald Trump is an unlikely American President.  Prior to becoming president of my small lay-led shul a little over a year ago, I was only marginally involved.  I didn’t attend services regularly and I wasn’t active with any committees or organizations. Prior to his campaign and election as president, Donald Trump had no involvement in government.  Like Donald Trump, I came into office as an outsider seeking to create change.

My transition into the role as synagogue president was difficult at first and often bumpy. For a while it seemed like constant conflict. I know that some people had serious concerns that I was going to single-handedly destroy the Congregation through changes that I felt were necessary for ensuring our survival.  As I watch Donald Trump’s first few days in office, I think of the mistakes I made and the lessons I’ve learned. Like Trump I’ve run a business, but leading a synagogue, like leading a nation, is a completely different experience. I don’t know who is advising Trump but if I were asked what advice I would give him, here is what I would say:

  • Go Slowly – You’re the new kid on the block. It’s very tempting to want to change everything at once, but change often frightens people. To accept your leadership through change, people have to trust you, and that trust has to be earned. Start will small low-risk changes, then move onto the bigger projects.  Unless there is an immediate crisis that cannot wait, take the time to build consensus and to carefully examine your ideas as you gain institutional knowledge.
  • Find Your Mentors – Seek out those who have been around a while and seek their guidance. Their advice can save you a lot of work and heartache since they know how things work, how to get things done, and what hasn’t worked in the past.
  • Ignore the hateful comments – Nothing good comes from a leader responding to hateful statements. Remember, you hold the power that comes with your office, the people criticizing you don’t have that power. A rude response just makes the leader look like a bully. You have to accept that any time you occupy a leadership position people are going to sometimes disagree with you.  That disagreement is sometimes expressed in angry hateful ways.  You have to be above it, but it’s not always easy.
  • Throw your opponents a bone every now and then – There will always be people who oppose your vison and ideas. Their input is valuable because they’re often the first to see the weaknesses in a proposed plan of action or change. Don’t fight them on everything. Give them a place at the table and an opportunity to contribute.  Besides, you may need their goodwill someday.  Midterm elections can drastically change the balance of power and the good will you build today can be essential to making any progress later.
  • Rules Are Your Friend – Complying with rules that sometimes seem like outdated impediments to implementing your vision can be frustrating, but is absolutely necessary. As a leader, you have to do all you can to protect the organization and the integrity of the office you hold. If you want to lead with any legitimate authority, the rules have to govern you even more than the people you lead.  Following the rules communicates that you are not a tyrant, but an ethical and principled leader.  I frequently remind my board: “Principles before personalities”.
  • Beware the late-night email – I’ve learned that if I get an email from a board member or congregant that is sent after 10pm at night it’s probably a long angry message peppered with insults. These emails can be hurtful. Fortunately, I don’t get many of these anymore, but when I do, I’ve learned to take a deep breath and under no circumstances do I send my own late-night angry response.  I usually give it a day or so and then I either call the person or I invite them to coffee to discuss their upset. So far, I’ve only had one person with whom I couldn’t improve things by sitting down and talking.
  • It’s Not About You – Things are going to happen that are out of your control or that you didn’t anticipate. You will often get the blame or the credit for these events.  Share the credit, shoulder the blame, and move on.  You’re only a temporary occupant of an office that will continue long after your term ends.

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