Leadership: Take the Stairs

Led Zeppelin sing about a stairway to heaven but is there a stairway, or even a ladder or a step stool, to effective leadership? According to leadership expert James G. Clawson the answer is yes. In his book Level Three Leadership: Getting Below the Surface, Clawson outlines what he believes are the six steps to effective leadership. In this two-part series, we’ll discuss all six steps, beginning with the first three: clarifying your center; clarifying what’s possible; and clarifying what others can contribute.

First, clarifying your center. Clawson says, “Your center, or core, and its content are crucial to your ability to lead. When your center is clear and focused, you are more likely to have a powerful influence on others. When your center is foggy and diffuse…you’ll be off balance and unable to provide dependable anchor points to others.” He goes on to say that “clarifying your emotional center is about determining what you believe in and value.” We have suggested this before, that effective congregational leadership involves deep consideration about your synagogue’s mission and goals. It is easy to forget in the everyday business aspects of running a synagogue that you, leaders, are in fact running a synagogue – not a business but a house of worship. Congregational leaders are managing the sacred and, as Clawson would argue, keeping this and your congregation’s mission at your board’s center or core is of the utmost importance in being effective leaders.

Most congregations have a thoughtful and well established mission but it never hurts to reexamine it, particularly with the goal of clarifying your center in mind. Clawson offers three considerations to help with this clarification. Two considerations are developing character (considering the moral implications and dealings of your position) and meditation (clearing your mind in an effort to focus); it’s the third consideration, though, that is most important: Engagement. He says that “when we are truly engaged in something, we begin to influence others without even trying.” This, too, will sound familiar to Inside Leadership readers, as in the past we have studied Stephen Covey’s approach to leadership, which says that if you are excited about something and that excitement in palpable, others will gravitate toward you and follow your lead. Clawson agrees, saying “when we are truly engaged, leadership just begins to happen.”

The second step to effective leadership is clarifying what’s possible. “To clarify what is possible,” Clawson says, “is to imagine in sharp detail what can and should happen for…an institution in the future.” By and large, in our parlance this step is known as strategic thinking. When leaders clarify what is possible, they look outward; they think “outside the box” and are not restricted in their scope of thought by what is normative.

Clawson suggests that while many people have no trouble imagining, in vivid detail, how they would act in some fantasy situation – they just pitched a no-hitter or won an Oscar – they often don’t allow their minds time to wander when wondering about their organizational fantasies. Clawson says, “In the rush to respond to the daily press of mail, phone messages, meetings and emergencies, we spend our working lives…working on urgent items,” loosing sight of the long view. Certainly there are issues that require immediate attention; but the next time you and your board meet, consider temporarily eschewing some of the agenda items that are not time sensitive and instead focus deeply and strategically about one item’s big picture. In other words, consider how to address the problem, not just the symptoms.

Last, Clawson’s third step to effective leadership is clarifying what others can contribute. This includes your basic assumptions about others and identifying critical skills. This step is important because as we’ve discussed in past issues, getting buy-in from your congregation can be the lynch pin to successful implementation of a program or policy. Clawson agrees. He says, “Unless you can develop a view of how others can contribute to your objectives and vision, it’s not likely that you’ll be able to get their commitment.”

Clawson argues his point by pointing out that in many business situations, “managers think of their people in terms of the job description they have.” Still others think of their employees “in terms of the job description [management would] like them to fill.” Neither one of these approaches is particularly effective because they do not stem from the person’s actual ability. Instead, this third step challenges leaders to identify other people’s skills and work with them to develop these skills. By recognizing your members’ (or even fellow board members’) talents and empowering them to channel these talents for the good of your congregation, you can create that sense of “buy-in” and the congregation can reap the benefits of their contribution.

Identifying critical skills is also an important part of this third step. When developing leadership in your congregation, it is preferable to seek out people not based on their vocational skills, but rather on these four skills Clawson highlights as critical:

  1. Self-esteem, so that leaders are able to receive feedback without getting defensive
  2. badge-leadershipLearning attitude, so leaders are interested and even eager to learn new skills and techniques
  3. Team spirit, so that leaders are willing to share in the work and responsibility for results
  4. Pride in quality, so leaders will want to find ways to improve results

These skills, Clawson urges, are essential to identifying those who will be able to stand by you and serve as effective leaders.

Read part two, “The Second Flight,” for the final three steps of effective leadership!

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Robin Riegelhaupt

About Robin Riegelhaupt

Robin Riegelhaupt is the Assistant Manager of the URJ Knowledge Network. Throughout her tenure at the URJ, she has served as a writer for the Congregational Consulting Group and the information resource specialist for the Department of Synagogue Management. Prior to joining the URJ, Robin was a web editor at the Washington Action Office of the Jewish Federations of North America and a grassroots organizer for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She holds a Master’s degree in Political Management from George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Theatre from the University of Central Florida. A native New Yorker, Robin lives in Astoria, NY, and writes about the arts.

2 Responses to “Leadership: Take the Stairs”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Thanks, Robin, for this provocative and sensible article.

    I’d like to speak first to your point about clarifying your center. It’s important to note that this applies both to the institution and to its leadership. We have all seen congregations drifting fearlessly forward, doing “good things” without a sense of how they apply to the priorities of the congregation. The new project that is never measured against the mission statement — the project that leaves no meaningful residual (such as a new cadre of leadership available to the congregation). Clarifying the center for leadership means having a set of personal goals consistent with the congregational goals. Too many presidents see their roles as reigning in the rabbi, fronting for the congregation (without really knowing what they’re fronting for), controlling the budget, and presiding at board meetings.

    I think often about the cartoon my rabbi had taped to the door of his study — showing a group of men sitting around the boardroom table (in those days, boards tended to be all men), while the chair announces, “We have only two items on our agenda this evening — the leak in the men’s room ceiling, and the future of American Judaism.” We all know that the typical board spends hours on the men’s room ceiling, and rarely confronts the future of American Judaism.

    The other very important point you raise is the fit between the individual and the job description. Ultimately, I believe the institution is best served if you drive your leaders out of their comfort zones. As a communications professional, I never would accept the chairmanship of the PR committee, which offered me no personal growth. But I took great pride in restructuring the adult education program, expanding its curriculum and broadening its scope, , and learning new skills of persuasion and new opportunities to expand the horizons of the congregation.

    This is not to say I would turn down the services of the one who wants to contribute in the area of his professional competence — I would just want to be sure his blinders weren’t “protecting” the congregation from out of the box thinking.

    I could go on and on, but let me conclude by describing the “ice breaker” I used to use, when I was part of the Union’s volunteer cadre of facilitators for Board workshops. I would ask the group to introduce themselves to me, telling me what their job was at the temple, and what their day job was. But then I asked them to add what they brought from their day job to the temple (e.g., professional skills) and what they brought from the temple to their day jobs — which most had never thought about before. This exercise invariably resulted in a group of people who thought they knew one another recognizing how little they actually know about their colleagues. If my workshops did nothing else (and I was never sure if they did), they started a process of team building based on a values perspective!


  1. Leadership: Take the Stairs, The Second Flight | RJ Blog - January 3, 2013

    […] we discussed James G. Clawson’s first three steps to effective leadership. To recap, steps one, two and three are: Clarifying your center; clarifying what’s possible; […]

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