Servant Leadership in the Presidency of Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D.

As we expand our leadership mindset to understand leadership as a collective process, more people are questioning the leadership assumptions that are embedded in traditional organizational structures and processes. On January 1, 2014, the tenure of the current president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Dr. David Ellenson, will come to an end, and Ellenson will become Chancellor of HUC-JIR. In the context of this journal, we will examine David’s presidency as a model of a specific kind of relationship-based, servant leadership.

Building and sustaining relationships is David’s essence. It is the defining quality of what he seeks to represent not only in his work but as mantra of his life. As we learn from leadership literature: “relationship-driven leaders are more empathetic, patient and tolerant. They approach decision-making subjectively, using personal values as a guide and examining how each option will impact others. They are approachable; strive for harmony among their employees and work to build consensus and trust. They also admit when they’re wrong and seek constructive criticism. …they are adept at listening and forging personal connections…”

Ellenson represents both relational leadership and what is called “network leadership.” Network leadership is unlike conventional leadership approaches; it is collective, distributed, bottom-up, facilitative, and emergent. The individual model of leadership historically associated with strong organizations is more directive, top-down, and transactional. In no small measure Ellenson’s network of relationships, both within and outside of the institution, has served him well as he brought to the office of the president a host of personal and academic connections and friendships that would benefit the presidency. These relationships would both provide support and comfort to him in his most difficult moments. In specific situations, David was asked to act in ways that might have unraveled or compromised friendships, he was simply unprepared to make such choices.

David can also be understood as a “servant leader.” The servant leadership model was introduced by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 book, The Servant as Leader. This particular leadership framework is built around ten operational principles, including the following concepts: the importance of listening; the art of persuasion; a heightened sense of empathy; self-awareness; and a capacity to think beyond the immediate challenges by providing a longer term perspective (conceptualization). According to Greenleaf, “The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

Other skill-sets include “foresight” and “stewardship.” One of the most compelling themes associated with this model is “community building,” in which Greenleaf emphasizes a return to team membership and the idea of collective engagement. He writes, “Servant leaders are servants first who consciously choose to lead as a way to serve the development of others. They act as humble stewards of their organization and achieve results by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve.”

For professionals serving religious communities and the broader non-profit sector, this model offers some instructive elements. Traditional management models focus on the centrality of the leader; in the servant leadership framework the leader distributes both power and authority, while demonstrating a collaborative style of engagement and decision-making. David Ellenson in many ways embodies this approach as reflected in his style of network and relationship-based leadership.

No doubt, David’s personal religious engagement aligned with his intellectual connection to Judaism and his commitment toward building a coherent Jewish future offers us insights into his mindset. In an interview with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs several years ago, David had occasion to reflect on his commitment to Hebrew Union College. “My soul is bound to this institution and to the holy mission that animates it,” he wrote. “It has been the greatest privilege to devote my life to this school.”

Steven Windmueller, Ph.D., serves as the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR, Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. A longer version of this article first appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy.

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