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How the High Holy Days Teach You 3 Surprising Gems About Leadership

October 19, 2016 Jeff Lesher


Thanks, Mom! Every year, for the better part of 50 years, I take a small stab at being a good son by accompanying my Mom to High Holy Day services at our family’s synagogue. I’m not a particularly religious person, but there’s something to be said for being open to inspiration from nearly 6,000 years of history, study, and reflection. My attendance and attention paid off this year with at least three gems:

  • We – all of us – have the guaranteed opportunity to change who we are, what we do, and the impact that we have every day.
  • It may behoove us to consider we only have a certain number of words we get to utter in life; so choose them wisely and be mindful that those words may be your last words …
  • Peace is much more than the absence of something (like war), it’s the presence of something – like a sense of well-being and fulfillment.

Fresh off yet another leadership assessment from which I learned about even more ways I could do better and be better, I was very much on the lookout for tools to use. Here’s my take on how the gems above might help in refining our ability to lead:

  1. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” (Yogi Berra) – Pretty sure Yogi was Catholic, but he nailed this one for all of us. The New Year in Judaism is observed with many references to the “Book of Life” and our inscription in it. Rabbi Laura Geller has broadened our understanding of the ability we have to make everything new again by the choices we make every day. Our “book” can be edited, and we get to decide what to emphasize and what to leave behind. It’s never too late (as so eloquently encouraged by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans in Designing Your Life). In life, in leadership, in everything, we can and should embrace our ability to grow and pivot

  2. Words can hurt; words can heal. Most of us have a story about something someone said to us that raised us up or brought us crashing down. For me, one of the most powerful things that was ever said to me came from parents of players on an opposing soccer team to which we had just lost to in a bitterly fought, extra time playoff match. I was the goalkeeper and allowed the winning goal. To be fair, we were over-matched and fortunate to have extended play. Nevertheless, I was crushed. Head down, I started towards my team’s bench. I hadn’t taken three steps when several adults ran out to me. I didn’t know who they were. Each of them shook my hand and told me how much they admired my play. I have to tell you that, even writing about this many, many years later makes me emotional. It taught me about many things, including the power of expression and the joy in competing to the best of your ability. At this year’s service, our Rabbi encouraged us to consider whether what we were going to say was true, kind, and necessary. My leadership profile showed I can take more time to plan and structure what I say, to seek the counsel of others more often, and to show greater openness to their ideas. Being mindful of the preciousness and the power of words can help me do better in all those areas.

  3. How you feel is important. I had a conversation with a client recently in which she ended at least a dozen statements with words like “but it’s okay” and “I can deal with it,” when it was abundantly clear that “it” wasn’t okay even if she can deal with “it.” At SHIFT, we believe in the opportunity to do things (we GET to). It also should be said that any of us should get to feel great about what they do, where they do, who they do it with, and so forth. Some of that is a choice. Some of that comes from picking the right place to be. And, sometimes, we have to ask for and even demand something in order for that feeling to be true. Fulfillment is the presence of something, not the absence of something.  

These three take-aways blend nicely. When we believe that we should and can be fulfilled, and we accept that the power to effect change resides in our ownership of “editing” our “book,” we can set about being even better people and leaders starting with what we choose to say, and when and how we say it. Happy New Year!


TOPICS: High Performance, Leadership Development