Visionary Leadership

December 1, 2006
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Jen Glaser

Nathan Laufer, The Genesis of Leadership: What the Bible Teaches Us about Vision, Values and Leading Change Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006, 288 pp, 24.99

In a moment of personal reflection and disclosure in the second section of The Genesis of Leadership, Rabbi Nathan Laufer speaks to the Janus-like vision of good leaders. Visionary leaders develop a double gaze; one looking back seeking to understand the significance of the past, the other looking forward toward the future: “The past becomes a refracting mirror” through which we establish benchmarks and insights that enable us to better interpret the significance of the present and to construct a vision for the future. (pp.103-4) Laufer notes that this double vision, central to his own role as past Director and CEO of the Wexner Heritage Program, underlies the very conception of their programs. In his book, Laufer offers us a different form of this dual vision, one that turns to contemporary leadership theory as a refracting mirror through which to explore the richly textured narratives of the Bible, and through this to establish benchmarks and insights to interpret our own lives and construct our own understanding of good leadership. In doing this, Laufer embodies a core quality of the visionary leadership that he espouses.

Divided into four sections, The Genesis of Leadership traces the slow unfolding of leadership as God and humanity mature through the biblical narrative. Laufer is quick to point out that we can learn as much from the pitfalls and failures of leadership illuminated in these early stories as we can by their successes. To that end, Laufer connects narrative threads across different episodes in the lives of the central characters to illustrate the many ways biblical figures grow into their identity as responsible leaders.

The first section focuses on leadership qualities displayed (and absent) within the personal and familial relationships of Genesis. This section revolves around “three concentric circles” of responsibility: for myself and my own actions; for those with whom I have established relationships; and for others falling within the orbit of my influence. The flip side of this responsibility is trust; leaders need to communicate to those under their command that they are valued and won’t be exploited and that they are being led somewhere worthwhile.

The second section of Laufer’s book explores Exodus through the lens of ten guiding principles of leadership drawn from contemporary leadership theory (including Michael Hammer’s Reengineering the Corporation and Jim Collin’s Good to Great). This section offers a rich and sustained analysis of Moses and the people who shaped his destiny from birth through the rebellion at Mt. Sinai. Based on the work of philosopher Peter Koestenbaum, Laufer characterizes courageous action as a principle of leadership: “the preparedness to autonomously choose to tolerate maximum amounts of anxiety and uncertainty in the freely chosen pursuit of one’s convictions.” (98) Anyone who has launched a school or led a process of change knows exactly what Laufer is talking about!

The third section shows how Moses adapts and responds to the challenges of transforming a people into a nation. Leadership requires that we not only have a vision for a better future, but that we make and act upon critical judgments. Here Laufer poses eight recurring challenges addressing some of the harder moral and political dimensions of leadership, including issues of dissent, the misuse of power, and challenges of institutional organization. The final section, “The Legacy of Leadership,” asks what a leader needs to attend to in order to ensure smooth succession. Here Laufer focuses on the tasks of leaders as their period of leadership ends — evaluating success, transferring leadership, and recording one’s legacy. This book provides us with a rare opportunity to bridge the worlds of leadership theory and the Bible, taking the reader in new directions and planting seeds for further thought.

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Dr. Jen Glaser, a member of the faculty at the Mandel Leadership Institute, Jerusalem and the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University, focuses her research on personal identity and group membership, pluralism, critical thinking, children's philosophical thinking, and the connection between philosophical inquiry and the teaching of the Bible.

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