What Makes A Jewish Leader?


Misha Galperin, president and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development, has just written a book called “Reimagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations: Ten Practical Lessons to Help You Implement Change and Achieve Your Goals.” It is his second book for Jewish Lights Publishing. The first was “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?”

Galperin, 54, earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University after coming to the U.S. from Ukraine at the age of 18. He is past CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and COO of UJA-Federation of New York. He and his wife have four children and live in Brooklyn. The Jewish Week spoke to Galperin last week about his new book and the issue of leadership.

Q: In your new book, you say too many Jewish leaders mistakenly hire staff to complement their vision. Why is that wrong?

A: In today’s world — particularly in the Jewish community — you need to have vision emerge not from a single individual but from a group of people who are going to feel part of it, buy into it, have ownership of it. I am convinced that having the right people on board is the most important thing. If you have the right people who have a similar ethos and goals, they will figure out how to get it done. Without the right people in place, it won’t happen.

The recent resignations of the top executives at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society came just weeks before the release of a survey revealed that the overwhelming majority of nearly 450 Jewish executives have no succession plan in place. Do you believe organizations should have someone in the wings groomed to step into the top spot if needed?

It would be best to have groomed people from within, but occasionally it’s a good idea to have a search. You have to make sure you have the right person for the organization, and sometimes that means people from within and sometimes it means people from without. I wouldn’t make a hard and fast rule.

How should these leaders be viewed?

I do think that in the Jewish communal world they should be thought of as a professional and not someone who can be parachuted who has no experience in the profession, no understanding of the community and how organizations work.

You also say that sometimes it is necessary to fire lay leaders.

In the federation world we often call everybody who is involved a lay leader – including people who donate, who serve on a committee, who participate in some fashion. … My definition of a lay leader is from [writer and management consultant] Peter Drucker. He said leaders are people who have followers. I think unfortunately too often the people who end up in leadership positions are those who want them or are coerced into them but they are not necessarily the right people for the job.

But it is tough firing lay leaders who do not get paid.

Yes, they also likely donors. They are doing this work out of the goodness of their heart and we don’t want to offend them. But our process of selecting, training and mentoring lay leaders leaves a lot to be desired. It is often something people don’t think about as a discipline. You can’t be a leader in a Jewish organization without learning and understanding what nonprofit governance is, the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit, between governance and management, and the appropriate role for lay people versus the professional. There is an education involved and just becoming a chair or president without learning something about what is known in the field is something we don’t practice nearly enough.

Could you give me an example of such an error?

When I took a job as an executive the day before an executive committee meeting, the lay chair came to me and said this is how I want an issue to be resolved. I said I don’t believe that is correct, that I work for the executive committee and the board. He said no, you work for me and I tell you what to do. That was out of line with the governance of the organization. I told the whole executive committee and they agreed with me. The issue was the process — not the substance.