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Leading With Your Head When Your Heart Is in Crisis

In my thirteen years as CEO for JFCS, I can honestly say that the past four years have tested my leadership and stretched me personally in ways I never could have imagined or prepared for. To that end, I’d like to share what I have learned so far.

Never are the tenets of authentic leadership more needed (or tested) than amid a major crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest (i.e., January 6th), and now the Israel-Hamas war are just some of the MANY challenges I have had to lead my organization through. I have been called on to provide support, guidance, and direction to individuals with markedly different and nuanced needs – our employees, Board members, and the clients we serve. This has forced me to think deeply about who I am, what I value, and how to convey the most human parts of myself to those I encounter.

Full disclosure: when I first became CEO, I assumed my sole focus would be on creating strategies to ensure our organization’s financial sustainability, service delivery, leadership development, Board cultivation, and innovation. While I’m certainly not suggesting that any of these areas have been neglected, the truth is that I have also been challenged to re-imagine what authentic leadership looks like in the midst (and aftermath) of a crisis.

Currently, as JFCS provides much-needed support to community members during the Israel and Hamas war, my thoughts instinctively go to my own daughter who is currently in Israel. Every day I grapple with how to lead my organization in an authentic and fearless way, while simultaneously fearing for my daughter’s well-being. And this doesn’t include my personal struggles to reconcile current events with my deep investment in, and love for, the state of Israel.

So, what does authentic leadership look like? Paradoxically, for me, it means sharing my vulnerability, my humanness, and the fact that I don’t have all the answers. It means relying on my internal compass which is sometimes in conflict with what others expect. It means being real and transparent about my anger or sorrow so that those I lead can trust my authenticity.

While I personally grieve all loss of life in this conflict–innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians—as a leader of a Jewish organization I have a responsibility to create a safe space for everyone in our organization to grieve and heal through this horrific state of affairs; to express their fears while communicating messages that honor the dignity and sanctity of all life. This direction feels human. It feels compassionate. And, I hope, it enables all staff to connect with each other regardless of their differences.

As I encourage my staff each week, I am taking care of my own needs on my own time and in my own way.  As the leader, I am “walking the walk” – exercising “use of self” (a social work term) so as not to burden anyone else with my anxieties but also to reveal my humanness so that I can connect to others. That sense of connection, with boundaries, is truly what enables me to lead in these most difficult of times. My effectiveness is a story that will be told at another time. But right now, I am in it and so, I carry on with following my internal compass.