A True Friend

When we were in high school, my friend, Danny, went home from school one day to find that his mother had moved. The rental house they lived in was empty, she was gone, and he was on his own. No child welfare worker came to his rescue, and no neighbors took him in.  What little he had of a childhood ended that day when he was sixteen years old.  He never returned to school and I didn’t see him again for about year until I ran into him working as a bus boy in a 24-hour diner located on the west side of Pensacola, Florida.  He told me that for a time he lived in the woods while he sorted things out and found a job.  He’s been working ever since.  Every day, he’s gone off to difficult unpleasant jobs that don’t offer a future that’s any better than the present and a paycheck that most of us couldn’t live on.

Danny isn’t simply an acquaintance. He has proven himself to be a loyal friend for so long and on so many occasions that our not being friends isn’t an option.  We’ve shared apartments, protected each other’s backs during more than one street fight, explored the streets of New Orleans together, shared adventures that will never be retold, and shared the experience of growing from boys into men, and then into middle-age.  He’s seen my very best and my very worst, knows many of my secrets, and he’s never once wavered. Saying Danny isn’t my friend would be like saying my left arm is no longer part of my body. He is my true friend.

To be poor and white is to be defective in the eyes of many

This is why I was stunned and felt betrayed when Danny told me that he voted for Donald Trump.  We don’t normally talk politics and I’d always assumed we were on the same page.  Everything I know about Danny and his life tells me that Donald Trump doesn’t reflect his values or his interests.  I asked myself how he couldn’t see that Trump offered nothing but greater hardship in his life?

Danny explained that his vote wasn’t for Trump as much as it was against more of the same. He felt injured by the Affordable Care Act because he wasn’t able to purchase health insurance, so he lost his income tax refund as a penalty.  He doesn’t closely follow politics so he wasn’t unaware that part of the difficulty he experienced trying to get health insurance was due to Governor Rick Scott’s rejection of federal assistance for people like him.  All Danny knew was he was losing his annual windfall because of something that felt out of his hands.  His employers weren’t providing insurance, and his attempts to buy health insurance were futile.  Being self-employed, I can relate. My wife has spent countless hours on the phone with our insurance agent making sure our coverage continues.

That Danny doesn’t identify with people in the progressive movement shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Working-class white men like Danny are easy targets for progressive arrogance.  To be white, male, uneducated, and poor is to be an exception to the idea of white male privilege and such people are written off lazy, morally corrupt, or engaged in some form of substance abuse.  Unworthy of either compassion or assistance, people like Danny are easily maligned, ignored, or overlooked by progressives who, at the end of the day, care more about their causes than they do the people they’re supposedly trying to save. I suspect that Danny knows this. He may be poor and he may lack formal education, but he’s not stupid, and he reads people very well.

Even if progressives took a moment to talk with Danny, I can’t imagine they’d see him as I do.  Danny speaks in what is often pejorative and politically incorrect language that instantly offends progressive sensibilities. His is the speech of people who work in warehouses, the back ends of restaurants, slaughter houses, and all the other places where backbreaking dirty work gets done. The sometimes-brash offensiveness of his language isn’t hostility or aggression as much as it’s a remaining vestige of personal power for those who live in a world where other people hold most of the power. There are times during our conversations when he gets emotional and the F-bombs start to fall during every sentence, punctuating his language and stories with a brashness that refuses to capitulate to the judgment of the world.  So many of my progressive friends explode with righteous indignation at the very first sign of anything they deem to be tinged with racism, sexism, or any of the other many “isms” claimed as their causes.  What is missed by this self-righteousness that vilifies poor working-class white men like Danny is the understanding that this is the language of the oppressed, not the language of oppression.  It’s like judging a book by its cover.  The outside might be rough and sometimes unattractive, but what’s inside the pages is pure gold.  Danny isn’t a racist, a homophobe, or any kind of hateful person.  He lives in a neighborhood and works in a workplace that are much more integrated than mine are.  His friends and neighbors come from all groups, but I don’t think he’s aware of this.  When he speaks of people, he speaks of their character, of their acts of kindness, and their ethics.  I know from experience that he doesn’t consider race, gender, or sexual orientation for a moment when he sees someone in need.  If he’s able, he helps with a full and complete heart.

The Forgotten America where people like my friend, Danny, live.

The last time I stayed over, which was a few years ago, Danny didn’t have internet or even email. The only piece of technology he had was a second-hand X-Box video game he had hooked up to his television.  Maybe it’s the lack of technology that keeps him from spending his days obsessing over 24 hour news or participating in non-productive Facebook political discussions where we seek out people who reaffirm our ideas and arguments. Based upon our conversations, I sense that Danny spends his time on concerns that are much more immediate.  Will he get overtime this week at work, or will the boss cut his hours?  How is he going to raise $1,500 to pay for the colonoscopy that his Doctor wants him to have that isn’t covered by the low value health insurance policy he’s now getting through his employer? Can he go down the street to the new company that just opened up and get a job that pays 50 cents more per hour?  With problems like these, you would think that he would fully embrace progressive ideas like better wages and better healthcare, but how much does the left really talk about such things, much less actually take action on the issues that impact Danny’s world?  Progressive activists are sure to lose his attention when they begin their tirades about renouncing privilege, avoiding cultural appropriation, and embracing intersectionality – concepts that I hardly understand after more than 7 years of higher education, concepts that all seem to heap the blame for every historical and current injustice in the world upon white males, and which seem irrelevant and ridiculous when you’re stuck on the bottom looking up.

Maybe someday those of us on the left will get over ourselves and stop reducing people to stereotypes.  Imagine the coalitions and relationships that could happen if we simply gave people the benefit of the doubt and offered them a place at the table regardless of whatever warts they might bring with them. Who might join our causes if we let go of moral and intellectual arrogance and replaced it with a sense of true kinship with our communities?  How many other Dannys are out there, sitting ignored on the side-lines?

Archie Bunker – Where Are You? America Needs You….

We need Archie Bunker to save America. Even though he was a fictional character of an uneducated, narrow-minded, right-wing, homophobic racist bigot, he spoke to us all during the turmoil of the Vietnam War, the Sexual Revolution, and Watergate, and we all loved him, or we at least loved hating him.  Growing up in the 1970’s, I remember that iconic theme song as each week my family would watch Archie clash with his hippie son-in-law, Michael, (a.k.a: “Meathead”), his feminist daughter, Gloria, his long-suffering wife, Edith, and a parade of relatives and neighbors. Through their conflicts they struggled with the social and political upheaval of the time.

At a time when many were losing faith in the institutions of American life, and many feared our nation wouldn’t survive, Archie was there every week being his loud and obnoxious self.  Despite his divisive ideas and arguments, he brought us together and carried us through in a way that no other character of the time did.  It didn’t matter if you were a liberal hippie or a Nixon Republican, you could watch Archie Bunker, and somehow it wasn’t so bad.

Archie and Edith’s chairs are now part of the collection of the Museum of American History in Washington DC

When I see the reruns of All in the Family today, I’m amazed at the complexity of the writing. The interplay between Archie and the Meathead, both of them strong-willed, self-righteous, and attempting to shout the other down, all the while missing how similar they really are, was the most radical television of its era.   I loved the irony of the Meathead trying to change Archie, often judging him, while also accepting the free room and board that allowed him to obtain the education that he so often wielded against Archie.

Perhaps it was the competing, and often opposing, characteristics within the character of Archie Bunker that endeared him to so many of us.  Despite his ignorance and prejudice, there were also facets of him that were kind, compassionate, and selfless, and his desire to be a good person could not be ignored by the viewer.  His racial and ethnic prejudices, which were a running theme of the show, weren’t simple.  He wasn’t a cross-burning Klan style bigot, his was a prejudice that was fueled by tradition more than hatred, and maintained by a fear of change. He didn’t ask for forgiveness or understanding, but there were boundaries to his prejudices that humanized him.

Archie Bunker was a complex character of good and bad, innocent and guilty.

Archie Bunker did more than just give America an opportunity to spend 30 minutes each week laughing at itself, he gave us an image of ourselves that was far from perfect, yet was worthy of redemption, and would occasionally find its best self.  He let us see each other beyond the single dimensions created by the labels that we often attach to each other.  He showed us that we’re all capable of growing, of being kind to the stranger, and that we can love each other without agreeing or “fixing” each other.

As I look at America today and the angry divisions that I fear are going to tear us apart, I wonder what happened to Archie Bunker?  Can the left and right still laugh at themselves and their own hypocrisies? Do we still have the ability to look past the labels, the differences of opinion, and see something good in each other?  How would Archie, Edith, Gloria, and Michael (a.k.a: “Meathead”) navigate the issues of our time?  Where would Archie fall on the political spectrum today?  He was a dedicated union member, which is now inconsistent with the conservative politics with which he identified a generation ago. What would Archie Bunker be like with today’s never-ending stream of fear-inducing headlines? Would Michael and Gloria have outgrown their youthful idealism?  Would the passionate arguments between Meathead and Archie end with claims of “fake news”?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I sure do wish Archie was still around to get us through the present day.  All In The Family was a safe place in which to look at ourselves and laugh through the discomfort of the image that the show reflected. While we don’t admit it, I think there is a little bit of Archie and the Meathead in all of us, and it’s good for us to be reminded of that.  Sadly, the 1970’s sitcom is long-gone in this era of reality television, Facebook postings, and YouTube videos. Walter Cronkite and the evening news have been replaced by Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, and a million blogs offering up dubious, yet self-validating content 24 hours a day.  We now have the power to create our own reality that reinforces our beliefs and image of ourselves – no matter how incorrect, shallow, or one dimensional that “reality” may be.  Maybe instead of unfriending each other and posting every news article that says, “I’m right and you’re wrong” we need “All In the Family” rerun parties where we stream those long-ago filmed episodes of life at 704 Hauser Street?  Maybe the magic will still be there, we’ll all share a laugh at ourselves, all be humbled just enough, and be able to find enough love and goodness in each other to carry on together.

 

American Law – A System of Justice or Oppression?

Is justice being erased in the United States?

The American legal system is in grave danger of becoming a system of oppression used by the powerful against the weak.  When our courts are no longer accessible by the average person, when there is no mechanism for payment of lawyers who enforce the rights of those without economic or political power, when funds to legal services programs are cut or abolished, when laws are written that increase the procedural burdens and burdens of proof required when the average person challenges the wealthy and powerful, when the right to trial by jury is consistently nullified by boilerplate contract language, when judges are increasingly selected for their ideology and political alliance rather than their jurisprudence and temperament, when the legislature and corporate-drawn contracts of adhesion take away the right of the average person to use our courts, when the legislature passes laws prohibiting working-class people from bringing their often modest claims as a class-action lawsuits in our courts and forces them into expensive individual arbitrations, when the legislative and executive branches of our government seek oversight of our courts and underfund our courts to a degree that renders them incapable of performing their function in our democracy, you no longer have a system of justice, but a system of oppression wherein the law is used as a weapon against the weak.

Sadly, I see all of these things happening at ever-accelerating rate, based upon a fictional claim that the system is broken and over-run with frivolous claims by greedy consumers and their lawyers.  If one looks at how our civil ccourts are actually utilized, the falsehood of these claims becomes readily apparent.  Consider that, for the week of March 3 – 12, 2017, there were 126 civil cases filed in the Leon County Florida Civil Courts. Here is the breakdown of those cases by type:

Case type                                                              Number Filed
Auto Accident                                                                  6
Debt Collection                                                               60
Residential Foreclosure                                                10
Premises Negligence                                                      1
Medical Malpractice                                                       1
Discrimination                                                                4
Products Liability                                                           1
Inmate lawsuit                                                                6
Residential Eviction                                                      20
Misc Other                                                                       9

Of the cases filed last week listed above, 48 were filed in small claims court, which is supposed to be “the people’s court” due to relaxed pleading standards deigned to allow a less formal process than Courts that deal with higher dollar or more complex cases.  Sadly, small claims courts are increasingly the place where the wealthy and powerful bring cases filed by their lawyers against poor people who in the vast majority of cases have no access to lawyers.  Of those 48 small claims cases filed last week in my local courts, 40 of those lawsuits were not claims brought by individuals, but were filed by companies who purchase defaulted debt, usually credit card debt, and were suing individuals and families.  Most interesting, of those 40 cases, 20 were filed by a single company, Midland Funding, a company who has never once been willing to go to trial in any of the cases where I’ve appeared on behalf of a consumer who they were suing.  Unfortunately, most consumers are not able to secure representation by a lawyer and so they either settle or the court enters a default judgment when the consumer fails to show up for court.

Politicians, supported by corporate donations, are quick to raise a cry of alarm that we are experiencing an epidemic of lawsuits. They say tort lawsuits are out of control, but is this claim in any way reflected in the numbers we find above?  Do we really need to limit medical malpractice lawsuits when they constitute less than one percent of all the lawsuits filed? Why do debt collection lawsuits, evictions, and foreclosures constitute 75 percent of our civil cases? Where is the epidemic really? Where is reform really needed?

I fear that justice is about to become much more elusive in our legal system. There are a number of new laws being considered at both the federal and state levels that will only increase the one-sided nature of our legal system.  Most alarming to me is the current federal legislation entitled “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act” that is purposefully designed to kill class action lawsuits. The American Bar Association and a large number of consumer rights groups have issued statements opposing the law. Consumer claims are often unfeasible when brought individually due to the small amounts of damages that often represent huge profits for the dishonest business when spread over thousands of customers.  I understand that some people either don’t understand or are philosophically opposed to class action lawsuits, but no other mechanism is as important or as potent for maintaining integrity in our marketplace as the class action lawsuit.    Class action lawsuits are going to be even more important in an era of reduced government oversight as we see the disappearance of important consumer protection laws such as Dodd-Frank, and the restraint, if not outright elimination, of administrative watchdogs such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission.

Another misguided bill is the “Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act” which is aimed at lawyers representing individuals and families, and would require federal judges to impose sanctions in the form of costs and attorney fees against lawyers who file lawsuits that are deemed “frivolous” by the court.  Such a law would have a chilling effect upon the development of new legal theories or reinterpretation of the law.  It’s also notable that this law would not impose any risk for the lawyers on the other side who raise frivolous defenses.

Lastly, and I admit self-interest here, we are quickly reaching a point where lawyers like me who seek to protect the rights of individuals and families are going to be unable to continue our work. Ending class-actions, capping attorney fees, forced arbitration, complex and onerous pre-suit notice requirements, under-funded courts that charge excessive filing fees, making consumer lawyers vulnerable to one-sided sanctions, and the repeal of consumer protection laws will effectively put me, and many of my colleagues, out of business.  I know there are some who will celebrate getting rid of lawyers with a cheer of “kill all the lawyers”, ignorant of the roots of that statement and what an America without lawyers representing individuals and families will look like.  As for me, it’s a frightening future, one devoid of real opportunities for justice, where the masses live their lives subject to the whims and will of their corporate overlords.  We will no longer have a justice system; our legal system will be nothing more than a system that maintains the current power relationships in our society.  It will be a system of oppression.

Reality Distortion Field

They say that when Apple was developing the Macintosh computer, the engineers took the term “Reality Distortion Field” (RDF), from Star Trek, and used it to describe the ability of Steve Jobs to convince himself and others to believe almost anything and deny reality.  It was said that Jobs would routinely succeed in using charm, charisma, bravado, marketing, appeasement and persistence to overcome his team member’s denial or belief in the truth. They also said that Jobs would use the RDF to routinely adopt other people’s ideas that he would claim as his own after having rejected the very same idea when suggested by a team member a week earlier. Jobs’s reality distortion field wasn’t limited to his professional life. For example, Jobs appalled many around him when he persistently denied reality by refusing to recognize his own daughter, Lisa, despite a paternity test that showed more than a 96% change that he was the father.

The effect of RDF on the Macintosh design team was both positive and negative.  Jobs’ refusal to accept reality allowed him to get the team to push through barriers and accomplish things they thought were impossible. The Macintosh team created an amazing cutting-edge machine, and despite the insanity of the experience, most say it was one of their proudest accomplishments.  On the other hand, the Macintosh team missed development deadlines by more than a year, which gave IBM time to establish itself and Microsoft as the dominant players in the business personal computer market.  Apple has never really recovered this market loss.  This is one of the reasons that to this day people debate whether Macintosh was a commercial failure or success.  The human cost to Apple and Jobs was huge. Jobs’ behavior drove off many talented engineers and employees who quit and went to work for Apple’s competition.  Ultimately, due to his behavior, Jobs ended up out of the company that he co-founded.  Granted, he would return to help rescue the company a decade later, but it is said that he returned more mature and seasoned, and was more subdued in his leadership.

I think about this tendency to deny reality when I read the news accounts that have been coming out of the Trump White House.  I’m left wondering how similar was Steve Jobs during that time to Donald Trump today?  I read in the news that Donald Trump is now accusing President Obama of bugging his campaign office, but isn’t offering any evidence.  There was the whole fiasco regarding the crowd size at his inauguration in which his staff told reporters that they were putting forth “alternative facts”. There was the media statement last week that he believes the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents is being done by Democrats to harm him, again with no evidence to support the statement.  There is the denial of human-induced climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting it. Indeed, it’s been one episode of reality distortion after another since he took office just over a month ago. The question is where does this take us? Will Trump break through barriers to create a new future for America that wasn’t previously thought possible? I’m skeptical because I don’t see the passion to create in Trump that existed in Jobs.  On the other hand, will he alienate our allies and his supporters, produce little, and ultimately leave us with an expensive and deleterious outcome?

Of course, it’s not just inventors and populist politicians who are subject to reality distortion.  I think people do it all the time, albeit to much lesser degrees.  As a lawyer I spend a lot time trying to sort fact from fiction, and it’s amazing how often honest people manage to distort reality in order to avoid an unpleasant or inconvenient truth.  The important difference between most people and people such as Trump and Jobs is that when confronted with evidence to the contrary, most people accept reality.

 

You Shall Not Oppress The Stranger: My Call for Respect and Dignity for Transgendered People

I don’t know what it’s like to be a transgendered person.  I’ve always felt that my body and gender are one and the same and simply who I am.  That’s not true for everyone, which I think some people view as suspect since they’ve never experienced a disconnect between their body and gender.

I’m certainly no expert on this subject.  When the terms cis-male came up in a recent conversation I had to ask one of my friends what that meant (a cis-male is a non-transgendered male). However, I have encountered a few transgendered people and I’ve gotten some glimpses into their lives that have shaped my thoughts.

My first memory of encountering a transgendered person was almost 20 years ago when I was working nights as an Emergency Room volunteer at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.  A biological male dressed in women’s clothing was brought in after having been physically attacked when leaving a bar.  The beating was vicious.  The police brought him in, but it was clear to me that they had no interest in finding the people who attacked this person. I remember one of the nurses making a derogatory statement about how he should have expected the beating. I remember that when the man was discharged, nobody offered him fresh clothes and nobody came to pick him up and carry him home.  He was left to walk out through the waiting room with his bandaged face and wearing the blood stained and torn dress he’d been wearing when attacked.

A short time later, a woman who was transitioning to being male came to work at the computer center where I worked during the evenings while I was in school. The way I understood the story, he was a state employee who worked as a computer programmer.  None of the state agencies wanted him and our director had offered him a position.  He wasn’t allowed to work in the cube farm with the other programmers, but was kept isolated in a small windowless former storage room.

My next encounter with a transgendered person was when I represented a young effeminate black teenager who had been expelled from the Leon County school system after getting into a conflict with his school principal over his wearing skirts to school. The young man was in foster care, living in a group home, because his mother wouldn’t stop beating him with a belt in order to stop him from being such a sissy.

When people discuss the rights and protections of transgendered people, I think of the transgendered people I’ve known, the difficulties they’ve faced, and the harms they’ve suffered.  As a result, I am absolutely certain in the moral righteousness of providing whatever legal protections are necessary to allow transgendered people to live their lives with dignity and without fear of harm or persecution.  The bathroom issue gets no traction with me.  To limit someone’s bathroom choice based upon their birth gender, rather than the gender in which they live their life, is not rooted in protection for anyone, but in a denial of the reality of transgender issues and the hardships transgendered people face.  Simply put, it’s rooted in ignorance and xenophobia.

Throughout history people have attacked those who live outside the mainstream. Those who are different are so often used as the scapegoats upon which society focuses its fears and prejudices.  Transgendered people are the proverbial strangers in the mainstream where most of us exist, which makes it sadly ironic that so many who seek to oppress and reject them claim to be religious people. Repeatedly, the Bible tells its readers not to oppress the stranger, but to protect the stranger.  Not oppressing the stranger is the most repeated Biblical commandment. It is the central message of Western religious thought. Refusing someone the right to use the bathroom consistent with their identity is oppression, even more so when one is talking about school children.  Sadly, those who hold power in the United States today have missed this fundamental lesson of religious and historical morality and are using their power to incite hatred and abuse upon the most vulnerable members of our society.

 

Happiness in An Unhappy Profession

Associate Attorney is the Most Unhappy Occupation

I’m a happy person working in a profession that includes what some have called the most unhappy job in America.  According to an article published on the Above The Law legal blog, the most unhappy job in America is associate attorney.  To be fair, I’m not now, nor have I ever been, an associate attorney.  An associate attorney is a lawyer who works in a law firm as an employee.  The closest I’ve ever come is the almost two years I spent working as an assistant public defender immediately after law school. I loved the Public Defender’s Office.  The work was intense, I was in court every single day, and my co-workers were great.

I really love being a lawyer despite what the researchers say.  Sure, it’s a lot of difficult hard work. Being a self-employed lawyer is risky with lots of ups and downs.  Sometimes it’s heartbreaking because I don’t always win and I argue from the heart.  It always hurts when a judge or a jury rejects an argument that I’ve spent days researching and crafting. I’ve had to learn to pick myself up, shake off the damage, and keep going.

I’m not wealthy, and my income is very modest compared to most lawyers, but I don’t feel at all impoverished. Instead, I feel incredibly fortunate.  I get to work at home a lot where I sit at my desk in shorts and a comfortable shirt with my dog at my feet and my cat occasionally interrupting me with a jog across my keyboard.  I get to work with my wife, who challenges and supports me in every way.  I chose my clients and the cases on which I want to work.   I have complete control over the tools I use from the pens we buy for the office to the software we use.  I even get to choose my working hours and I can take off as much time off as I’d like and can afford.

I don’t really understand being unhappy as a lawyer because I find what we do to be so incredibly interesting.  Legal cases are stories, often imperfect, always fascinating, and always teaching us something about ourselves and the world in which we live.   When I step into a courtroom on behalf of a client, I am privileged to tell my client’s story.  Each case gives me an opportunity to change someone’s life, and sometimes I can even change the rules by which we all play.  I’ve gotten to stand next to people who came to me feeling that no one was listening or cared and I’ve shown my clients that they have a voice and are worthy of respect.  Sometimes I can even persuade people to care about someone they’d overlooked.  My arguments don’t always work, but sometimes, when I’m in the right court, with the right facts, and the right argument, I get to change the world.  To do that once in your life is amazing, but to get the opportunity to do that every single day, is a priceless gift to me.

Public Interest Lawyers Work Hard, But Have the Highest Happiness Rankings

According to the New York Times, another study indicates that the happiest lawyers are public interest lawyers, those at the lowest end of the lawyer pay scale. Public interest lawyers make only a fraction of the earnings of firm associates, and are paupers compared to firm partners, but they’re the happiest of all lawyers.  Clearly, more money isn’t the key. The article speculates that the reason for this difference in happiness is:

The problem with the more prestigious jobs, said Mr. Krieger, is that they do not provide feelings of competence, autonomy or connection to others — three pillars of self-determination theory, the psychological model of human happiness on which the study was based. Public-service jobs do.”

I think there is truth to this speculation. I love the opportunities for self-determination and autonomy that my work provides.  Most valuable of all to me is the connection my work creates for me with my clients, other lawyers, the judges before whom I practice, and the community in which I live.

I didn’t consciously chose the pathway to happiness when I started my legal career.  My life is really a product of happy circumstance combined with what I often see as a somewhat selfish tendency to choose experience over monetary benefit.  I would rather scrape by in a job that I feel makes a difference, than do unfulfilling work that pays a lot of money.  I am also aware that I’m very fortunate because I get to make that choice. So far, I’m happy with the outcome, so I guess I’ll just keep on doing what I’ve been doing.

 

 

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.

Monday Morning Spirit Lift!

Lots of people have been feeling down lately.  Maybe their team lost a big game in a stunning upset, or the news coming out of DC has got them down.  Instead of the regular blog post, this week I offer you a short video that I hope will make you smile and forget your troubles for a moment.  I invite you to take a walk in the woods with my dog, Banjo. In his world, there is nothing better than a walk in the forest on a sunny day.