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Memo to the (Federation) File: The New CEO’s Reading List

July 15, 2009

Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time.” – E.P. Whipple

Notwithstanding their often harsh and withering expression of opinion, critics are often the most adoring supporters of substance, especially the written word.  E.P. Whipple, one of the 19th century’s finest literary critics knew this well;  even though he was well acquainted with numerous literary personalities, it was the books he held most dear.

I was recently reminded of Whipple and his famous quotation about books as lighthouses when a friend asked me my opinion of the news of the new CEO at UJC/Federations of North America.  I don’t know the new CEO, nor am I qualified to pass any opinion on the matter.  But I do know that the challenges he faces are great and the opportunities are even greater. And I know that he steps into his role in a time when there are many clouds and the waters are quite choppy.

In other words, no matter his skills as a captain, he could use a few good lighthouses to help guide his way.

So that got me thinking – rather than respond to my friends query with uninformed advice that would  be ephemeral and illuminate very little, I thought I might suggest a few books that could serve as lighthouses to the new CEO.  My list is as follows:

1.   Book of Joshua (Sefer Y’hoshua).  My friend Rabbi Joshua Heller recommended to me that I go back to Joshua (the book, not him) when I was experiencing my own leadership transition, and it was very sage advice. Wandering in the desert is one thing, crossing into the land is another. We are at an important moment of time in Jewish history where we are facing many of the parallels to the Book of Joshua;. a good reading of the book (and commentary) reveals those parallels and much more.

2.   The Roots of the Future by Rabbi Herbert Friedman. Everything old is new again, and this book makes the case that there is a compelling approach to our future that can be borne out of our past.  This book not only covers Herb’s amazing life, but speaks to the importance of the Federation movement and the power embodied in its ideals. Essential reading from an essential life.

3.   Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I am fond of saying that I am a big fan of H&H, but not the bagels – Herb and Heschel. This book is a perfect compliment to Herb Friedman’s book, if Herb’s is about experience and action, these essay by Heschel are about vision and audacity. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the current state of the Federation movement is we have lost some of the audacity and amazement that were hallmarks of its earlier days. Reading a bit of Heschel can make you believe in the need to bring it back; and we need to believe before we can begin anew.

4.   Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal.  We use language about reimagning organizations, but often what we really need is to reorganize our imaginations. Bolman and Deal provide an important source of knowledge on how we can enhance our organizations and ourselves. Any good leader understands that success is based on choices, and choices that are not only his/her own. The leader of a national Jewish movement needs not only that understanding, but a guide to converting that understanding into action. This book helps.

5.   Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution by Geoffrey Moore. He helped us cross the chasm, and survive inside the tornado, but Moore’s best book is the one where he helps us understand the power of engaging innovation as part of an organizational culture. This book is not the only book the new CEO should read on innovation, but it is a good start (especially Chapter 7 on renewal innovation).

6.   Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Bedside reading for negotiators, this could be one of the handiest books on the list for the new CEO. There will be negotiations aplenty, with donors, local Federations, partners, and governance, and the answer always need to get to “yes.” Negotiations can be adversarial, but if properly constructed they can be incredibly empowering and enriching for both parties –  and we need more enrichment in our local and national discussions. Special attention should be paid to Chapter 4 “Invent Options for Mutual Gain.”

7.    Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson.  Contemporary Jewish America is complex – rooted in Jewish heritage but colored by streaks of frustrating ambivalence. We paint pictures on tapestries of our own design, often using our own colors in painting images found elsewhere in society. In many ways we are like we are a community of talented and challenging artists. So in order to get a better sense of our collective inner Jewish artistry, I suggest reading about Chagall, one of the greatest Jewish artists in history. He is an artist that embodies our times, and Wilson’s book is a wonderful place to start.

8.   Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life by Shifra Broznick.  I previously wrote that the next CEO of UJC/Federations of North America should be an outsider and should be a woman. So, although one out of two isn’t bad, we should make no mistake – we still need more women leadership in the senior professional ranks of our movement, and this should be a priority of the new CEO. This book is an important resource, but not nearly as important as the resource we would all have if we had more women CEOs in Jewish communal life.

9.   Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff.  The new CEO doesn’t need to Tweet or blog, but he needs to understand those that do. It is a different world than it was a few years ago, and it is constantly changing – our movement’s leadership needs to not only adapt to that change, but to anticipate it as well. Part Two of this book is essential reading for anyone facing and embracing the groundswell.

10.   Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End by Dr. Daniel Gordis. In North America we hold a deep passion for Israel but often struggle to find the right voice to express that passion. Fortunately we have Danny Gordis to help us, and he shares that voice in a serious book for serious times. Our Federation movement needs to continue to reinvorgate American passion for supporting Israel, and its leadership needs to be a bold voice in this effort. On page 216 of the book, Danny writes “the purpose of Israel is to transform the Jews.” I suggest that a primary purpose of the Federation movement is to help in that transformation, and this book is an important resource to aid in that effort.

11.    And one bedtime story…  The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band by Betty Stuchner (a PJ Library Selection for 5 year olds). Between reading books for my own pleasure, I read books we get from PJ Library to my children. This is one of my (and my daughter’s) favorites. Not only does it teach history, but it teaches the power of music and the poetry that is created when many instruments join together in harmony. After reading the stack of books suggested above, a short nighttime story for the CEO would be in order, and this is a perfect choice. Joy, music, song… they are not just the stuff of children’s books, or at least they shouldn’t be. This book is a simple reminder of the music we can all make together in our families and in our communities when we play, and work, together.

So that’s it – ten books and one bedtime story that I have on my (initial) suggested reading list for the new CEO.  I welcome others to join in  (in the comments) with their suggestions – not only for the CEO’s reading list, but our collective education as well.

Few things are more ambitious (or exhausting) than a good, long reading list; and while I hope the CEO spends more time listening and leading, there is no substitute for some good reading.  But lighthouses can only help so much, especially in rocky and choppy waters – so safe reading one and all.

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One comment

  1. […] Seth A. Cohen, a 35 year-old activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation, shares a reading list for the new CEO at UJC/Federations of North America: https://boundlessdrama.wordpress.com/2009/07/15/memo-to-the-federation-file-the-new-ceo%E2%80%99s-rea… […]



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