November 4, 2016

A Letter from a Jewish Leader

David Harris, American Jewish Committee Chief Executive Officer

Having spent many years in Jewish communal life, I have learned the importance of effective leadership. Indeed, in many ways, it is the key to Jewish success.
When I was invited to speak at a university a few years ago, the staff there thought I’d naturally want to address questions of international affairs or, more specifically, the Middle East, but I said I wanted to share with the students something no one had shared with me while in high
school or college: the elements of leadership I had tried to learn on the job.
It worked out quite well, or at least I hope it did, though those students coming to challenge a pro-Israel advocate must have been sorely disappointed with the topic under discussion. My aspirational understanding of leadership can be summarized by the acronym VIPHS. I hope you will find it helpful as you pursue your high-school education and beyond.

V is for Vision
A leader needs to see beyond the present. The challenge is not just to get through the day, difficult though that may admittedly be at times. Rather, it’s to formulate a longer-term goal of where to go and why.
Identifying the aim of the exercise is only the first step for a leader, though. In some ways, it may even be the easiest, though rarely simple. The next two steps are still more difficult.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, one of my political heroes, famously said in the Houses of Parliament in 1940, “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - Victory in spite of all terrors - Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
In doing so, the British leader set forth a crystal-clear goal for his nation at war.
However, then came the next step: how to operationalize the bold vision, which would have to entail just about every nook and cranny of government and society.
Along with the vision and its operationalization came, hand-in- hand, the third element, one that Churchill, of course, excelled at, namely, how to communicate the goals, the stakes, the needs, and the urgency in a way that would galvanize an entire country.
Churchill set a standard to which few can aspire and even fewer can ever match. Still, at whatever level of leadership each of us may be, his example and the essential elements of
vision should be an inspiring example and constant reminder.

I is for Integrity
Leaders worthy of the name ought to be people of unimpeachable integrity – personal integrity, intellectual integrity, moral integrity – and the institutions and offices they lead need to reflect the same levels of trustworthiness.
In other words, I am who I say I am and we are who we say we are.
Enjoying trust is one of life’s biggest gifts. Squandering or betraying that trust can be irreparably damaging.
The choice must always be clear, conveyed and convincing.

P is for Passion
Leaders of whatever rank or position should be infused with a driving passion for their mission. Their passion ought to be contagious, spreading to everyone around them.
I recall a former employee once telling me here, “The difference between you and me is that for you this is your passion, while for me it’s my job.”
Well, in that case, I must have failed, because a leader’s goal must be to help ensure that what excites and inspires her or him is as universally embraced as possible.
For some reason, I just about always had a driving passion for my work, be it as a waterskiing counselor at a Maine summer camp (well, that was easy to have a passion for!), a postal worker in Philadelphia, an English-as- a-second- language teacher, a migration caseworker for Soviet Jews in Rome and Vienna, or, since 1979, here at AJC.

H is for Humility
We live in a world where hubris, not humility, too often rules the roost; where “me” is often far more common than “we,” where it’s about one’s personal strivings and satisfaction, not something larger and where strutting and boasting are frequently on display.
Then there are those who feel this way but try pretend otherwise, so they practice what I’d call a feigned or contrived humility, wanting to play the part, but not doing so very convincingly at all.
The aim of an authentic leader, I believe, ought to be in seeking to achieve genuine humility, which means understanding that we’re all part of something much bigger than ourselves, that we depend on one another for our ultimate success and that the inherent worth and dignity of everyone on board needs to be affirmed and validated.

S is for Spine
I’ve also come to understand that a leader needs a backbone.
The goal of the exercise can’t always be universal appeal or approval, desirable though they may, at first glance, seem.
Leaders must be many things and play many roles, but having the courage of one’s convictions, standing up for them, and, when necessary, being unflinching and resolute are non-negotiable traits of leadership.
Of course, leaders need to know how to listen, truly listen, to others; how to avoid the trap of becoming their own best advisers; and how to keep an open mind before making decisions.
At some point, though, leaders need to go beyond, to make decisions and to be willing to defend them.
As the late U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower said, “The path of great leadership does not lie along the top of a fence.”


David Harris is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a prominent Jewish advocacy organization. Before joining AJC, Harris worked with Jews in both the Soviet Union and in Ethiopia.

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