Op-Ed: The need for ‘followership’ programs

TULSA, Okla. (JTA) — “Another leadership development program? Don’t we already have enough of them in the Jewish world? What I think we need are some ‘followership’ programs. Go find me some of those to fund.”

When Charles Schusterman spoke those words to me in 1999, he had a good point: Back then, most Jewish organizations and foundations seemed more interested in producing leaders than in building inspired communities.

Were Charles alive today, however, I think he would feel otherwise.

The past decade has witnessed the emergence of a new generation of programs in which the primary focus is on those who participate, not on those who lead. While Taglit/Birthright Israel, Moishe House, Hillel and Limmud are among the most obvious examples of this shift, a host of other organizations also have embraced the concept of “followership” by making engagement of the many a higher priority than the empowerment of the few.

Unsurprisingly, some of these organizations have had greater success than others. Why?

First and foremost, successful followership programs place the participant at the center of the experience. For example, a recent marketing study of a music festival showed that its peer-to-peer recruitment approach, where the consumers shaped much of the message, was far more effective in reaching the target audience than the more traditional, top-down campaign they also pursued.

Interactivity and openness to new ideas are two other keys to effective followership programs. One of the most profound impacts of the Internet is the degree to which it has “democratized” the flow of information. As a result, program providers must now be prepared to listen as much as they speak and learn as much as they teach. Participants want to play an integral part in shaping their own experiences and building their own communities. The best followership programs encourage these behaviors.

The best followership programs also recognize that it is their responsibility to sell rather than the obligation of their potential participants to buy. All too often, we in the Jewish community bemoan the fact that our young people just don’t get it. This is where our thinking is faulty. We assume their inability to recognize the wisdom of our position is a shortcoming on their part rather than a reflection of our failure to communicate effectively and persuasively. We must remember, it’s not about us, it’s about what is happening.

Ultimately, however, and perhaps somewhat ironically, the best followership programs are those that take all of the above and sophisticatedly integrate  them with one other principle: leadership.

Though seemingly counterintuitive, I strongly believe that one of the best places to witness the effective use of the principles of followership is within the ROI Community, a leadership development program established by our foundation five years ago in partnership with Taglit/Birthright Israel in order to introduce young Jewish adults from around the world to the crucial issues of the day and to encourage their involvement in the building of vibrant Jewish communities globally and locally.

ROI recently celebrated its fifth anniversary by convening 120 young Jewish innovators and activists, each of whom has a personal vision about how to make the Jewish world a better place. Over the course of several days, I listened as these young leaders explained how they have helped hundreds of thousands of their peers and contemporaries throughout the world broaden the depth and breadth of their Jewish activities, all for the purpose of reaching them with a powerful message: that in their search for meaning, for relevance, for spirituality, actively engaging in Jewish life is a path worth pursuing.

ROI isn’t alone in its quest to empower leaders to engage participants. American organizations like the Center for Leadership Initiatives, Bikkurim, Joshua Venture Group, Jumpstart and Upstart; European efforts such as Paideia and J-Hub; Israeli groups like ROI and PresenTense; and, of course, Taglit itself — just to name a few — have helped hundreds of Jewish social entrepreneurs educate and inspire their peers through collaborative and  cooperative programs and projects.

Indeed, I see enormous potential for impact at the global intersection of  followership and leadership, some of which is already being realized with the Jewish Salons network and the web portal Jewcology.com.

Jewish Salons, which aims to promote Jewish identity through arts and culture, connects young Jews from different communities by co-producing events that provide an alternative mind-set to formal community institutions. Young activists in Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna and Mexico City have established local salons since the international network’s launch in Tel Aviv in 2006. In 2009, some 1,500 people participated in 14 salon events.

Jewcology.com, a collaboration of 19 ROI members, is being launched to create a platform for Jewish environmental activists to network and share program resources. The long-term goal of the web portal is to build a multi-denominational, multi-generational, regionally diverse community of Jewish environmental activists who are learning from one another how to educate their communities about our Jewish responsibility to protect the environment.

The structures, the people and the resources are ready to go; all we need is the will.

(Sanford R. Cardin is president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.)

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