A Picture of Leadership


I’m always fascinated by what art we take with us when we move. and what art says about personal identity. That’s the clinical psychologist in me speaking. But if I had to analyze myself (which is never a good idea), I’d look at one picture which has traveled with me from office to office and which recently got a new location here in New York City. It’s a copy of a painting that I bought for a hundred rubles in 1993 on the banks of the Neva River. Significantly, I bought it on the first trip I made back to the FSU after I left permanently for the United States.

I don’t know the name of the artist or the painting, but it depicts a fictional meeting of several Russian leaders around a table. We find Czar Nicholas and Stalin, Lenin and Yeltsin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Kerensky standing and sitting around the table; no one is looking at anyone else. They all look past each other. Behind them on the wall is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the elder called “The Blind Leading the Blind.” I joke that they are my advisory committee.

Two leadership lessons come to mind when I look at this painting – which is every single day that I am in my office. In this picture there are people who shouldered the leadership of one of the mightiest and largest countries in the entire world, but having power and position is no guarantee of success. Getting to power is not as important as what you do when you’re in a position of power.

This past year for me in the Jewish Agency has been a lot like a political campaign. We tried to create new leadership, a new strategic plan and a new vision. I’ve been traveling the world trying to get people to invest in a dream, but now the elections are over. The leadership is in, and the hard part begins: the daily governance of an organization, making sure that things work and that a new vision tied to an enduring mission can be realized.

It’s one thing to tell people “Yes we can.” It’s another thing to do it. When it comes to Jewish leadership and political leadership, we often spend so long strategizing how to get to power that our energies are spent by the time we’re actually there. But that’s when the real leadership is necessary.

The people in my painting were each connected to immense political changes. Nicholas ended the monarchy. Kerensky led the first provisional government. Lenin was the architect of the Bolshevik Revolution and put communism in place. Each represented change and came to power to implement change. In many ways, Stalin was the most “successful” leader to bring change to Russia. He was also the most destructive. Each was a disappointment.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin undid the Soviet Union they inherited, and we credit them with that. But the measure of a great leader who implements change is the long-term view, and the FSU today is not where the world hoped it would be when the Cold War was won.

To me this painting is about the aspirations and the pitfalls of power that come with the terrain of leadership. We often concentrate on getting there but not on being there. We try hard to secure our positions with the machinations of politics but get tangled in the process instead of in the outcomes. That is why the strategic plan we are trying to implement as the Jewish Agency needs to be expansive, innovative and thoughtfully implemented. Most importantly, it needs major input from the Jewish community at large. One of the reasons strategic plans don’t work is the same reason that the blind lead the blind in my painting. No one paid attention to the end-user, and it was ultimately the end –users who suffered the most from political changes in Russia.

I keep this painting in my office to remind me where I came from and as a cautionary vision of what happens when things go terribly wrong. I wonder if we created a Jewish version of this painting who would we place at the table and what would Jewish leaders who stimulated significant changes say to each other across the centuries. Maybe Moses would be talking to Herzl about how neither of them actually made it into the Promised Land. Perhaps Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai would have had advice for David Ben Gurion. I’d like to eavesdrop in that room.

I’d also like to know who would be sitting around the table today. Politics and agendas aside, who is really changing the Jewish community today? Who is around our table and how engaged are they with each other? How do we leverage power appropriately so that we govern fairly and bring real change to Jewish organizational life?

Can someone please paint the picture? But this time put all of us in it: those who lead and those who follow.

Misha Galperin is executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Agency for Israel, North America.