Leading in Front, Beside and in the Middle

Posted on: January 13th, 2016 by Hayim Herring




Many congregations are in rabbinic search mode this time of year. Given the instability that congregations often face, many will seek rabbis who can initiate and lead the kinds of change that will reinvigorate congregational life. The intuition of these congregations is right on target, as rabbinical leadership ultimately determines the impact and sustainability of congregational change efforts. Of course, it takes the collective effort of an inspired rabbi and excellent, focused volunteer leaders to make congregations vital. However, a rabbi’s personal and ongoing involvement is a critical and key success factor to the achievement of lasting and significant congregational change. I therefore focus on insights about rabbinical leadership that increase the likelihood of success of broad and deep congregational change initiatives.


My colleagues who have successfully transformed congregations have a repertoire of leadership stances. They practice leading in front, leading beside and leading in the middle. They move in and out of these roles as they initiate and attempt to anchor transformational change. These observations flow from my primary research on denominational and independent rabbis and congregations, a review of substantial secondary research on congregations and nonprofit organizations, scholarly literature on leadership, and extensive work with rabbis, congregations and nonprofit organizations.* While certain fundamentals of leadership are enduring, other needed attributes of leadership are emerging in today’s environment of expected transparency, immediacy of communications, disruptive technologies and the chaos they engender.




Leading in Front


Every successful change effort begins with a person’s inspirational vision and passion. An effective change mobilizer maintains the passion but seeks out a core team of people who enrich it because it resonates within them. Competent stewards of congregations and organizations invest significant energy into management, a complex set of activities and skills that include issues such as board and professional leadership development and adherence to the highest professional standards of governance. Rabbis who execute these responsibilities well are fulfilling a reasonable expectation of professionalism. But effective rabbinical change leaders view stewardship as the beginning of their work.


Rabbinical leaders are tenaciously focused on a vision of how their congregations change people’s lives and their broader communities. You know them when you meet them because it feels like the vision has taken hold of them. They are unable and unwilling to let it go no matter how many times people suggest that they do. That is what I mean by a rabbi leading in front: communicating a simple, powerful and inspirational picture of a significantly better future and engendering confidence in his or her ability to make it a reality.


To clarify two aspects of leading in front:


When Moses began his leadership tenure, he did not explain to the Israelites, “I’m leading you into a land that has mountains up north, desert down south, is hilly in the middle, and has a coastal plane.” Rather, he spoke elegantly about leading the people into “a land flowing with milk and honey” – in Hebrew, only four words, but ones that lifted an entire nation’s spirit. L’havdil, one of my colleagues who lived in what was then a relatively undeveloped area envisioned people building homes near the then-recently completed congregation and creating a Shabbat-centered community. He could see what others could not, communicated it clearly, remained focused on making that happen and succeeded years later. Another colleague believed that the mission of being a “caring congregation” could not be delegated to a committee, but had to be embedded more broadly among members. Years later, after pursuing that vision, many members own it. They may not know the full mission statement of the congregation, but they know that part of it because they practice it.


Possessing passion for a vision is not the same as having charisma. Passion is the rabbi’s or any leader’s refusal to give up on a core vision and the willingness to make sacrifices for it. Passionate leaders lose sleep in uncertain times, and cannot fall asleep at others from the exhilaration of watching it evolve. Passion attracts others because people sense something grander than any one individual. Some rabbis have charismatic personalities that “fill the room.” They tend to evoke stronger positive or negative feelings in their followers, so they eventually learn to rein in their personal presence and keep the focus on the vision. That allows a more diverse core team to emerge. Other rabbis are soft-spoken and measured, but learn to push through their preference for tranquility, so that they can inspire new leaders and re-energize existing ones. Often, whether these rabbis are extroverts or introverts, they have had mentors and coaches, and have gained greater self-awareness of how to use their personae to support a change process.


Leading Beside


Rabbis who effectively lead change learn that they need to move from leading in front to leading beside. In other words, they continue to directly participate in the change and implementation process, but stand far enough away so that they can also more objectively observe how the change is unfolding. As they release control of the grand vision to an initially small group and then a larger group of people, they ensure that the people who are doing the work have the necessary supports to move from ideation to implementation. They have the greatest knowledge context and content (they see “the whole picture”), better perceive the unanticipated gaps and determine how to bridge them so that the process continues to advance. In their “observer” role, they know how to keep individuals and groups focused on discrete tasks and to guide them to see how they are contributing to something even more transcendent than any singular piece. As participants, they provide their team with momentum, modify it as needed, but do not compromise the most essential aspects of the vision. They keep the bar high when others are tempted to lower it, and challenge the group to raise it higher as they gain traction.


Leading from the Middle


Leading from the front is like being the conductor of an orchestra: a hierarchically structured group of musicians with a director who interprets the music and unifies the group around it. Leading from the middle is more akin to leading a jazz band. Great jazz emerges from minimal musical structure and maximal musician autonomy. The conditions of minimal structure and maximal autonomy call for musical leaders and musicians who expect unpredictability, know when to let one another solo and when to play together, and presume mistakes will happen. But the leader understands that mistakes are opportunities for nimble adjustments and segues for continued learning. The truly incomparable jazz bandleader appreciates that innovation emerges from fusion and some confusion, finds exceptionally talented musicians, and challenges them to surpass the limits of what they believe are their own abilities. They are masters of improvisation and inhabit the domains of chaos and unpredictability. Jazz bandleaders do not only thrive in “disruption” but also actually provoke it to prevent great musicians from devolving into great technicians.


A small number of rabbis in established congregations, and many rabbis in emerging congregations, are learning how to lead from the middle. They surround themselves with colleagues and volunteers who do not tolerate mediocrity. No one – not a staff person or volunteer – is automatically entitled to be involved in a major change effort, and these rabbinical leaders learn over time to politely say “no” to those who are interested in helping but not suited to the effort. They do not wait to complete “100%” of the plan, but know that “80%” is preferable, because they will fill in the details faster and more accurately by launching, learning and improvising. They openly speak of mistakes and while their volunteer leaders expect fiscal responsibility, they also understand that the pathway to excellence and success is often through trial and error. Leading in front is an established leadership attribute. Leading beside requires blending old and new skills. Leading from the middle – provoking learning through disruption and identifying and cultivating expert improvisers, may emerge as one of the more important new leadership capacities.




I offer this framework of leading in front, beside and in the middle as one way of helping congregations and rabbis think about enduring and emerging rabbinical leadership roles during “placement season.” (In fact, I believe this framework is helpful for many organizations that are searching for executive leadership.) Within these rubrics, congregations can fill in many specific operational leadership tasks. But the truly great lay and rabbinic leaders who change their communities have learned that leadership is iterative and not linear, and know that these congregations need rabbis who can move in and out of a repertoire of varied leadership stances.


*I wish to acknowledge two publications that influenced my writing and thinking about leadership: my analogy to jazz, improvisation and leadership, was heavily influenced by Frank J. Barrett’s, Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2012), especially the first paragraph of the last section of this paper, “Leading from the Middle;” and, more generally, David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision-Making,” Harvard Business Review, November 2007.




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