Ideas, Judaism - General

Rabbi Google & Emergent Jewish Leadership

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“In an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, [Google] also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.”

Thomas Friedman, How to Get a Job at Google

Many of my fellow rabbinical students will often jokingly quip that we are training to enter an already redundant field, given how easy it is to google the answers to many Jewish questions, without the need to learn with or consult a rabbi in person.

Yes, Google has changed my job, making it more challenging in some ways. But Google is a visionary organization, and I’m not going to rant about how the internet has destroyed Jewish community life. Truth be told, the Jewish world could learn many lessons from Google’s forward-thinking perspective.

So here’s just one (or a few, really…)

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has a great piece outlining how Google goes about interviewing and selecting prospective employees [see: How to Get a Job at Google]. These are the things Google looks for:

  1. General Cognitive Abilitythe ability to process on the fly
  2. Emergent Leadershipthe ability to step in and out of leadership
  3. Humility & Ownership – the ability to embrace boldness, responsibility, and others’ ideas
  4. Intellectual Humilitythe ability to embrace failure

The number-one thing that Google doesn’t look for? Expertise.

Surprise! While much of the North American professional world is otherwise obsessed with stacking up institutional leadership experiences and traditional resume-building, Google’s model upends this notion. It is one from which the Jewish world could learn much. Here’s what I think we can borrow from them:

When Google speaks of General Cognitive Ability, they don’t mean how smart one is in terms of I.Q.; they’re looking for “the ability to process on the fly… to pull together disparate bits of information.” This is a great perspective on the power of liberal, progressive Judaism. There is value and power in learning from our texts, but Jewish leadership should not be solely concerned with amassing as much knowledge as possible; we must also be able to find meaning in all of the “bits” of modern existence, and quickly respond to the needs of our constituents. More on this, and the tension with accumulating knowledge, later…

Google presents Emergent Leadership in opposition to traditional models of leadership, which valued answering questions such as “Were you the president of the chess club? Were you the vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” Google doesn’t care about these things; they care about how one is able to face problems with the ability to step in and out of leadership roles appropriately. In this light, we should be less concerned with how quickly one rises to become Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and more concerned with how quickly said Executive Director is able to make room for others to lead within the organization. We should be less concerned with filling traditional institutional roles just for the sake of maintaining continuity, and instead concern ourselves with the divine Jewish concept of tzimtzum – the ability to step back and make room for others to lead.

Moshe Rabbeinu – the Jewish leader exemplar – is our prime model of Humility and Ownership. Perhaps Google turned to him for inspiration, when they wrote about their valuing “the sense of responsibility [and] ownership to step in… and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.” Anavut (humility) goes hand-in-hand with the previous value of tzimtzum. We should be bold in our leadership, fostering personal and communal ownership of the role of Judaism in our lives. But we must also be humble, acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, and that there is a vast ocean of good Jewish ideas being brought to the world. Liberal Judaism doesn’t have all the answers to how to live life Jewishly; there is much we can learn from the ownership models of Orthodox Judaism and organizations outside the bounds of our own religion.

It seems to me that humility really drives much of Google’s model of leadership. Friedman’s article notes that Google isn’t just looking for humility in how people make room for others, they are looking for Intellectual Humility. Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google, aptly quotes that “Without humility, you are unable to learn.” Bock points to the fundamental error that many successful people are prone to: “If something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved…”

How often do we rush to blame others for our own failures? As a result of his own greatest failure, Moshe Rabbeinu doesn’t get the greatest reward – the ability to enter into the Promised Land. But he ultimately embraces his failure and doesn’t try to blame others. Bock teaches us Google’s model of intellectual humility:

“What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”

This embraces the same dichotomy of ownership and humility – we need Jewish leaders with big egos to present radical ideas on behalf of their communities. At the same time, we need these  leaders to be balanced with small egos so that when they fail, they can be open to failure, change their mind, and keep going.

How about Google’s least important value – expertise? In this respect, Google’s model sits in tension with Judaism, where we place great emphasis on learning and amassing untold amounts of textual knowledge. Google says:

“The expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer… because most of the time it’s not that hard.”

This doesn’t square well with Judaism’s focus on specific textual and ritual knowledge. As Jewish leaders, it is our responsibility to teach others how to become experts in their Jewish lives; how to maintain ownership of their Jewish lives. This most certainly involves encouraging expertise and excellence.

But we can take Google’s understanding of traditional expertise, and reframe it in a model of Jewish leadership that shows us how to approach those who are not yet experts. We can and should value Jewish expertise and hold it up as an aspirational value. It’s just that how we encourage others to get there is not via the traditional way; it is through Google’s four-pronged approach to hiring.

We should not merely encourage Jews to amass a resume full of textual knowledge. The old trope of “this is what Jews do” is increasingly meaningless to most Jews. We need more Jewish leaders who understand this, and who embrace a model of leadership that speaks to the ways in which Jews search for answers today.

Jewish spiritual leaders should embrace the concepts of a holistic, progressive paradigm (General Cognitive Ability),  tzimtzum (Emergent Leadership), anavut (Humility and Ownership), and the character of Moshe Rabbeinu (Intellectual Humility). 

In this way, we will encourage visionary ways of living Jewishly that can’t simply be found from Rabbi Google.

Canada, Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Politics

Steven Harper could learn a lot at Yeshiva

To those who, in the upcoming election, might be compelled to base their vote on their religious affiliation:  If you are intent again to use a theo-political issue to trump your vote. (certainly, the Tories have done and are doing everything they can to convince you that this is a good idea), perhaps, first study some Midrash:

“Moses said: ‘I know that the Israelites are malcontents. Therefore, I will audit the entire construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)’. He began making an accounting: ‘These are the records of the Mishkan’ and he began reporting everything, the gold, silver and bronze, and the silver of the public census… He continued reckoning each item in the Mishkan in order, but forgot 1575 shekels from which the hooks on the pillars were fashioned, but which were not generally visible. He stood bewildered and said: ‘Now they will lay their hands on me, saying that I took it’, and he went back to recalculate. Immediately, God opened Moses’ eyes and showed him that the silver was used in the hooks on the pillars. He began to reply to them, saying: ‘and 1575 were fashioned into pillar hooks’ and the Israelites were immediately appeased. What enabled this? The fact that he sat and made an accounting…

…But why did he make an accounting?… It is only because he heard the cynics talking behind his back, as it says ‘And when Moshe left…they looked back at Moshe’. What did they say? R. Yitzhak said that people spoke positively. Then others would chime in: ‘Imbecile! He’s the one who controlled the entire enterprise of the Mishkan… gold and silver that were not counted, weighed, or numbered! Wouldn’t you expect that he be rich?’ When Moshe heard this, he said: ‘My word! When the Mishkan is completed, I will make an accounting’, as it says ‘These are the records of the Mishkan.’”

-Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 7

What’s going on here?

In short, the Midrash is teaching us that the fiscal cost of the Tabernacle – as a public project funded by the taxes of the Israelites – must be entirely accounted for in an open, transparent, and accessible way.

It’s also teaching us that Moses – as leader of the people – is answerable to the people. Even Moses, who speaks to God face-to-face in a way that no others do, must still face the people.

In a broader sense, it speaks about the virtue of transparency among leaders and the need to be open and answerable to the public.

Stephen Harper could learn a lot from Moses.

An egregious lack of transparency and accountability related to the purchase of military aircraft is exactly what led the Conservatives to be censured for Contempt of Parliament this past week. Of course, anyone with their finger on the pulse of Canadian politics knows that this specific issue is part and parcel of a greater patten of behaviour on part of the Tories; one that paved the way to the landmark ruling by (famed non-partisan) Speaker of the House Peter Milliken.

Certainly if we Jews acknowledge that Moses was expected to be held accountable to the people and to act transparently, we should bestow the same criteria upon Mr. Harper. Certainly if our Midrash teaches us the virtues of un-opaque leadership, we should value that in our national leader as well.

It is challenging for me to view how Harper and the Conservatives can be painted as an honest, transparent, accountable, and open government. Sure, there have been individual instances when they acted reasonable on these grounds. But the story of the Tories – as any learned political observer will tell you – is one of secrecy, opacity, avoidance of responsibility, centralized power, and tight-lipped relations with the Canadian people.

So to the Jews who will likely vote for the Conservatives on the grounds of their supposed dominance of the “support for Israel” (whatever that means) issue: if you value our rabbinic instructions as much as you value the Conservative’s platform (which, remember, didn’t exist when you voted last time…), perhaps you should reconsider the value of your vote.

P.S.: Not convinced that the Tories have a national Jewish-vote buying strategy in place? It isn’t just happening in Thornhill, it’s also taking place down the 401 in Montreal’s Mount-Royal riding.