It’s About Hope In a Trying Time

In a world that more and more people describe as crazy, confused, and even hopeless, we have two fundamental choices — bemoan the reality and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that at least we know how things are, or, appreciate the reality in which we find ourselves just long enough to look forward to whatever we are called to do by way of bringing a bit of sanity, clarity and hope to the world in which we live.

The former approach is easier, but the latter approach is how we help make tomorrow better than today.  Clal’s own Rabbi Elan Babchuck and his co-author, Reverand Kathleen McShane, not only live out option two each and every day, but they have also written a wise and beautiful book that invites us to follow their lead and even offer valuable tools to help us do so. That book is just released, Picking Up The Pieces, Leadership After Empire, from Fortress Press, and it is something very special.

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Elan about the new book, why they wrote it, how it can help us, and what he and Kathi see as some of the greatest challenges and biggest opportunities they are seeing in the world today.

 


Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

Let’s start with the title of your book, Picking Up The Pieces, Leadership After Empire, which suggests that things — at least some things — have fallen and perhaps even that there was a whole that has shattered.  What has fallen and/or shattered?  And why should we be concerned about that?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

We are living through a period of tremendous shattering on every level of human existence and psyche and in every domain of our marketplace. For better and for worse, just over the last decade, we’ve witnessed widely accepted historical narratives break down, identity and belief systems falling apart, religious denominations splitting and/or closing, the bankruptcy of what were multi-billion-dollar companies less than 12 months ago, hundreds of higher education institutions have closed while others have struggled to adapt to shifting times, and so on.

In the book, we look at one common thread that ties together all of these shifting domains: coercive, hierarchical leadership. What may have worked in previous generations (and that isn’t a given) just isn’t working anymore. In fact, it’s doing tremendous damage.

In our little corner of the world, what has also shattered for faith leaders has been the notion that the leadership model handed down across generations is actually sustainable – for leaders and for the communities they serve. Some 1,200 faith leaders are leaving their roles every month! The feelings of disappointment at the deepest soul level radiate throughout the system – from the leaders to the institutions to the seminaries to the denominations.

Your question posits that perhaps there was a whole in the first place, and perhaps that’s one of the axioms that we most need to interrogate in this moment.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

The title also promises that the pieces can be picked up. Tell us about what it means to pick things up — how they can be picked up and the extent to which, when we have picked them up, they can be reassembled.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

Indeed – they can. Our book traces the zig-zagging steps of Moses as he makes his way out of Egypt – and out of the shadow of the pyramids therein – all the way to the doorstep to the Promised Land. Along the way, Moses makes countless mistakes, but none without learning something important about himself, about the nature of God, and about the deepest yearnings of his followers (many of whom, by the way, are actually excellent leaders in their own right).

So just as he collected the pieces of the first set of Ten Commandments, and placed them in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the new, whole set, so too does Moses pick up the shards of leadership wisdom that he gleans along the way, eventually piecing them together in a sort of leadership mosaic to be handed off to the next generation.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

This is a book about leadership and a specific theory of leadership for which you and your author, Kathleen McShane, strongly advocate.  Without any “spoilers,” and my strongest recommendation is that people should read the entire book, what is one leadership lesson that you would hope all people take from this book?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

Trust your people. Trust them so much that it makes you uncomfortable – that it makes your whole organizational system uncomfortable. And then trust them some more.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

You chose to co-author this book, and with an ordained Christian Minister, even as you are an ordained Conservative Rabbi, and truthfully, both you and your co-author could have each written wonderful books on your own. Tell us about that.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

You know how they say that you should never meet your heroes? Well, that might be true in some cases, but not when Kathi McShane is your hero. I had heard about her remarkable work launching The Changemaker Initiative – a national organization that trains pastors and lay people to equip parishioners to become social impact leaders in their communities – and had read some of the sermons she had delivered about it over the years. We met at a gathering of faith-rooted social impact leaders about 7 or 8 years ago, and we immediately clicked. Before long, we were co-teaching a course, strategizing about the future of faith, and then – thank God – she had the idea to write a book together!

I’m grateful to say that today, Kathi is one of my closest friends and dearest colleagues and a true partner in crime.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

Your book is both deeply rooted in your respective traditions and unabashed about using them, and yet you are also fearless about a future in which those traditions may (will) express themselves in some very new ways. Why is that combination so critical to you personally, and why is it so important to the exercise of leadership in any domain?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

I’m in physical therapy these days, rehabbing from an accident many years ago, and on the wall at the PT place, there’s a big poster that says: “Work out because you love your body, not because you hate it.” There are so many folks who embrace innovation and entrepreneurship because they really just want to blow up the status quo, usually because it’s just not working, at least for them.

Kathi and I both love our respective traditions deeply. In fact, I could list many more things about Conservative Judaism – or the established Jewish community writ large – that I would never change than the ones I would.

So, this book is not an invitation to disrupt, change, or transform. It’s merely a provocation for each of us – lay people, clergy, leaders in all domains – to reflect on the ways that our culture’s lionizing of charismatic and coercive leadership has been impressed on us – for better and worse. And for each of us to look back on our journey thus far – the stumbles and successes alike – and look for those pieces of who we once were, what we once dreamed of becoming, that we’ve left behind.

There is so much promise ahead, but sometimes we have to be reminded that dreaming about that promise is a gift from God, not a distraction from the work to be done.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

I know from teaching with you that you love and live Stephen Covey’s adage that “things move at the speed of trust”, and you devote Chapter 7 of your book to the topic of trust, which is especially powerful at a time when trust — between people, and between people and institutions — is at historic lows.  In what and whom do you trust, and how do you sustain that trust, even when it is hard to do so?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

I probably trust more deeply and more broadly than I should at times, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Many years ago, I worked with someone who had lived the most remarkable life – they shared fantastical stories about near-death experiences, acts of unfathomable courage, unbelievably lucky windfalls, and outlandish achievements in a variety of fields. By their early 20’s, they had lived in a dozen different countries, learned 8 languages, aced the SATs, triple-majored in college, and so on.

For what it’s worth, I genuinely loved listening to their stories at the lunch table and probably picked up some good pastoral counseling practice when they shared some of the more complicated stories.

But one day, my supervisor pulled me into her office and shared with me that this person suffered from compulsive (or pathological) lying. And my supervisor wanted to make sure that I was aware of this, so that I could take care when it came to our professional interactions.

At first, I felt devastated and angry. This person had been pulling my leg all along! Does this mean that they didn’t become a certified elephant trainer at age 12?!?

But the emotion that I eventually landed on was a sort of humble gratitude. Whatever was true or not true didn’t really matter. This person had trusted me enough to open up some part of their lives – true or not – to me, and I could choose to receive that as a betrayal or as a gift. And I like gifts a whole lot more than betrayals.

So today (while I have a much more refined BS meter), I will continue to err on the side of trusting too much, too deeply, and for too long. Because in my four decades on this earth, the giving and receiving of trust has opened up so many possibilities for me and for those around me, and I would never want to lock one of those doors before I’ve had the chance to explore what’s inside.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

I also know that you are fiercely realistic, and yet you write powerfully about the power of dreams and of dreaming big. How do you, and how can we, hold those capacities together?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

The biggest dreams – while served by some of God’s greatest miracles – also demand the most diligent stick-to-it-iveness. Yes, God brought us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm and with miracle after miracle. But we didn’t get to the Promised Land without forty years of taking step after aching step, our bodies, spirits, and collective faith challenged each and every day.

I’m a dreamer by nature; it’s why I partner so well with people who can ground me. But those two gifts – the ability to envision a world that is still in formation and the skills to translate that vision into a series of steps – go hand in hand. Without Aaron and Miriam, there is no Moses.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

Writers are often changed by the writing.  What, if anything, has shifted or changed for you through the writing of Picking Up the Pieces?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

The process of making myself a student of the six leaders we profiled in the book – Rabbi Sara Luria, Rev. Maurice Winley, Rev. Eugene Kim, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Father Richard Springer, De’Amon Harges – truly moved my soul in ways that are still emerging inside of me. What a tremendous blessing it was to pore over their words, to immerse in their stories, and to soak up their wisdom over the course of the last couple of years. I will be forever changed by them, by that experience, and by the humbling gift of being able to tell their stories through this book.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

What did I not ask you but you wish I had?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

What’s my least favorite part of all of this, you ask? Getting over the feeling that talking about this book is just a form of self-promotion, which is my least favorite thing to do. But I’m learning to listen to my teachers – my wife Lizzie, the most prominent voice among them – and remember that this book isn’t about me at all. It’s about the six folks I mentioned above. It’s about hope in a trying time. Most of all, though, this book is really a love letter to the future. We are living through a moment of painful transitions in every facet of society – politics, education, religion, commerce – and it’s easy to lose hope when the work ahead feels so daunting.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

I know and love that you are engaged in many wonderful things at Clal, so my last question may be a bit like asking a parent to name their favorite child, but what’s the next project for you about which you are super-excited?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck:

The work that we have done with the United States Armed Forces over the past few years has been so deeply meaningful to me personally, as it touches on so many important facets of our work: pluralism, generous leadership, bridging generational gaps, the role of spirituality for the common good, and better serving young people experience mental health challenges. As our work with them continues to grow, I’m eager to find new ways to scale our impact, and to better serve those who serve our country.

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