Leadership and failure (1 of 7)

Thursday, July 15, 2021 | 6 Av 5781 


Dear All,

As I step down as CEO, this is the first of seven emails, reflecting on a range of different topics, to the Hazon list, roughly weekly from today. That’ll take us from now through August 26th – and it will give Jakir a chunk of August to settle in, before he starts to share some of his own opening reflections.

Thank you to the many, many people who sent gracious messages after the announcement last week. People said kind things about Hazon, about Pearlstone, about Jakir, about the merger; and about me. It was proverbially like hearing parts of your own funeral eulogy. (The analogy may be especially apt because funeral eulogies, I note, skew to the generous.)

I’m proud of Hazon. I’m proud to have worked hard to bring it into existence; and proud also that, despite bumps along the way, we are still in existence, and Isabella Freedman too. This should not be taken for granted. I’m delighted at so many of the things that, together, we have accomplished. I feel so lucky and so blessed to be able to have vision and to bring fresh ideas to fruition.

And yet I’m also conscious of the line that’s attributed to Churchill: success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm…Also Enoch Powell, making a different but maybe somehow related point: All political lives, he said, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.

So I begin these reflections with an email on the topic of failure and some thoughts about how we relate to CEOs.

I write neither out of false humility, nor out of a desire for self-denigration, but I suppose for three reasons. First, if I’m going to offer suggestions in future emails in this series (which I am!) I want to do so from a due sense of self-criticism, not from cockiness or from anyone assuming I think I am especially great; absolutely not. Secondly, as a community, we do (sometimes) argue that failure is a necessary concomitant of risk or innovation; but although we say that in principle, we far too rarely afford space to allow for what failure feels like for a leader. And then thirdly, and moving on from this, I want to say a little about how we relate to CEOs.

So first: there hasn’t been a time in Hazon’s existence in which I have not been profoundly frustrated at my own inability to accomplish X, or Y, or Z.

We might think this partly ok. That it’s the structural price you pay if you’re founding an organization whose name means ‘vision,’ and if you have, indeed, a big vision for some of the changes you’d like to see happen in the world.

But I think this is too easy. It’s a kind of cop-out. There are so many things I have failed at, or not done well enough. No matter how much we grew I always felt that we (i.e. I) didn’t manage to raise enough money. I always wanted us to find more and better ways to network people, to nurture and encourage staff and interns, to make introductions, to teach more, to develop and strengthen programs; to argue more successfully for this nascent field, for more outdoor education, for a greater commitment to environmental sustainability; more support for the Israeli environmental movement, and so on and so on.

And this is not just about externally. If I managed something too tightly, I felt I should have been looser and more empowering or supportive. But then if I was looser, I felt that I was responsible for any number of mistakes of omission or commission that I could/should have fixed. I’ve been incredibly frustrated with myself if a particular hire didn’t go well or if for some reason we – I – had to let someone go, and I did that inelegantly or in an insufficiently thoughtful manner. I have worried endlessly about saying or writing the wrong thing. I felt that I didn’t sufficiently help board members harness their own passions – but I couldn’t always figure out how to do so. And at a micro level, I was and am constantly frustrated at myself on a day-to-day basis – struggling quite literally to find things; or failing to reply to an email on time; or interrupting someone in a meeting; or getting over-excited at things. (I have ADD, which is real, and a thing of blessings as well as great frustrations, and worthy of its own email at some point.)

So I’m grateful to people for your kind words, but I don’t want anyone on this list to think I’m particularly satisfied with my own performance. (In the first few years, near the end of each year, at some point I would say to Richard Dale, who was then board chair, Richard – seriously – I think we need to sack me; I just don’t think I’m doing a good enough job.)

And at the same time that I share how frustrated I am at myself, I also note that maybe this is “normal.” (I think it’s possible that people with ADD do struggle more in certain ways, but I think almost all leaders are both challenged in many ways and self-critical in many ways.) And so linked to this – sideways to it, but related – is the question of how we better support CEOs. Because any human being functions better when they feel well-supported, and less well when they feel unsafe or they’re being attacked or critiqued. When Moshe, in the Torah, hits the rock – instead of speaking to it – is it because he’s had the children of Israel complaining to him almost constantly; and he finally loses it?

There’s going to be very substantial CEO turnover in the next few months and years, and not just CEOs but also rabbis and senior staffers of various sorts. We need generational succession, and a broadening of what our image of a “leader” or a CEO is. It’s right that this is happening, and I support it. But there are too many CEOs or senior rabbis to whom I speak that seem very burned out. (And – again – yes; we have had 16 months of Covid. An awful lot of people are burned out. Not everyone, but a lot of folks, CEOs or not.)

I feel lucky in being able to hand over to Jakir in this fashion, and in ending on a high note. And Jakir has, I think, an especially great temperament for this. (I do – sometimes – bring incredible joy and excitement to this work, but I am also more introverted than many people realize, and I sometimes have a certain kind of melancholy. Jakir, as well as his many other talents, and an incredibly strong work ethic, also has a disposition which is especially suited to leading well.)

And perhaps, also, going back to Churchill et al, some level of self-frustration is inherent in the human condition. President Obama, despite his many successes; by omission or commission, must he not feel that he at least partly paved the way for his successor? On certain sleepless nights, does he wonder about decisions he took, or failed to take, and what he could or should have done differently? David Cameron set out to be a reforming leader; on his first day in office he rode his bike to Conservative Central Office to signal his commitment to responding to the climate crisis. But he (somewhat randomly, i.e. under pressure from his own right-wingers) put a commitment to a Brexit vote into an election manifesto, and then a few years later compounded his error by not campaigning sufficiently seriously against Brexit. Thus did the UK secede from Europe, and a slow-motion constitutional crisis unfold. Even if he lives till 120, this is what his obituary will lead with.

So for all the other CEOs out there, all the senior rabbis, all the people stepping up into leadership. Unless they’re truly negligent or amoral or guilty of malfeasance, we must try to support and encourage them as much as we possibly can. The good-functioning of our non-profits, our institutions, our society, depends upon it.

And I understand how self-contradictory this may sound to you. Hang on a minute – he’s telling us that he didn’t do nearly a good enough job as CEO, and that we should be supporting other CEOs better? Well – yes. We have Leading Edge and 360s and a growing number of mechanisms for CEO assessment and self-assessment. And perhaps there are a few people out there who do need more criticism, or who have such an over-inflated sense of self that someone needs to pop their bubble. But I don’t think most CEOs are like that. Most are working really hard. They want the best for their staff. They’re juggling multiple and complex responsibilities. They feel acutely the range of things they need to be good at. They’re alarmed at the vicissitudes of social media, and the possibility, at any moment, that a small mistake or transgression could become a huge conflagration. They have funders with multiple different agendas. They have people to the right and to the left of them on Israel. They have board members who don’t just have different views but who also have different understandings even of what a board is and how it should function. (By the way: this is in general not true of the Hazon board. I and we have genuinely been blessed, over many years, to have had good board members, and a healthy board culture.)

So assume that any CEO in your orbit is self-critical, and that creating space to encourage or support them is one of the best ways to help them correct course.

This leads me to Shabbat Hazon, which is tomorrow, and then Tisha B’Av on Saturday night and Sunday. This is not an inspirational “hazon,” this is not (save in its very last line) a vision of anything good. It is, to the contrary, a dystopian vision of the future, of a destruction that will befall us if we don’t change our ways.

These things all connect. In the parsha we have an eco-system of leadership; Moses feeling burdened by leadership, but also (and partly because of that) goes out of his way to empower others. And then this vision of (potential) destruction.

I read this today as wildfires burn across more than a million acres of land out west. As fish stocks decline and a billion sea creatures died recently of heat exhaustion; as glaciers recede; as wild places are lost, irrevocably.

I read it as saying: focus on the destruction that may unfold, if we do not change our ways, as an entire human society.

And yet, even as we consider this scary future, lean in and support each other. Support all our leaders, CEOs, board chairs, rabbis of every sort; and encourage and expect them to support and encourage each and all of us, as well as they possibly can.

I end with this line from Pirkei Avot (1:6), this short and innocent line:

הֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת    he’vei dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zechut

Give each person the benefit of the doubt.
The idea is something like: as you judge each person, (or, perhaps, as you judge the whole person) tilt the scales in their favor. It is so easy to say, just these seven words in Hebrew. Yet so hard to do.

So let’s try to do this with each other.

And, at least sometimes, let’s try to do it with ourselves.

Shabbat shalom, tzom kal,
Nigel Signature