Leadership through Cultural Attunement

Leadership through Cultural Attunement 

Dr. Bill Robinson

Leadership does not take place in a vacuum.  We live immersed in webs of relationship and cultural tradition – stories, rituals, and norms.  To practice effective leadership, we must attune ourselves to the cultural landscapes across which we seek to journey.  We must learn to play the “games” embedded in our culture if we want to inspire others, and especially if we want to cultivate change. 

In the organizational literature, people often write about changing our cultures as if we could just envision a new organizational culture and plop it into place.  Anyone who has had a leadership role in a synagogue knows how hard that is to do.  Cultures tend to be resistant to change; they are “sticky.”  People may come and go in an organization, but the cultures persist.  And, yet, within any culture are the seeds of change.  We just need to attune ourselves to those possibilities by learning the cultural games.

While leadership involves acquiring a certain level of cultural proficiency, the secret is that all cultural practices have elements of play within them.  There are rules, but as with most games, there’s an important degree of flexibility.  Thus, the possibilities for change are always present.  Consider this example of the cultural “game” of gift-giving at life-cycle events.  There are a few basic rules that one learns, such as never offer a gift in return that is the same you received earlier.  Yet, the appropriate gift depends on many factors, such as what was the prior gift received from the person to whom you are giving, how lavish is the nature of the life-cycle event that you are attending, with whom have you been assigned to sit with at the reception (which has a lot to do with honor and why people sometimes wait to fill out the check), what are others giving, the nature of the relationship both formally (i.e., brother, cousin, close friend, acquaintance) and informally (recently warm or distant), and so on.  There is no easy answer as to the right move in this game, but as anyone who has given a gift in return can attest, there are certainly better and worse moves. 

Even in particularly Jewish games, in which there are many rules of behavior (termed halachot), there is always room for play.  The correct response depends on many factors, which require the participant to both understand the rules and the fluid social situation in which they are to be applied, along with the purpose to be realized through the practice.  For example, a “good” Shabbat experience may be described as one in which we experience a “taste of paradise” or “redemption,” in which we no longer feel the need to work to bring forth a better world.  The halachic rules against certain types of work during Shabbat create the space for this to happen, and yet they may be insufficient to realize the “spirit of the law” if, for example, one refrains from carrying money but not talking about finances.  On the other hand, a meaningful meditative experience (even one that you carried stuff to beyond the eruv), depending on the community, could be judged as an amazing taste of redemption.  

In order to make the right moves in the weekly “game” of Shabbat played with your family and friends, one needs to know the “rules” for that group (i.e., what are the boundaries of acceptable play).  Within those boundaries, there is the field of play in which one can and is expected to be flexible and creative.  Yet, to be successful at this game, one needs to understand the needs and aspirations of all the individual participants, as well as the relative success of past Shabbat experiences enjoyed by the group.  In comparison, imagine what a good yoga teacher needs to consider to craft an excellent experience for all her practitioners or the parent of a teen planning a Bat Mitzvah party.

Obviously, the degree of freedom allowed in the game of Shabbat (and many other Jewish practices) depends on the orthodoxy of the community.  For Reform Jews, what constitutes successful Shabbat observance is much more fluid and yet there are better and worse Shabbat experiences, even if that judgment is rendered mainly on the quality of the food and the conversation that occurs.  We’ve all been at better and worse Shabbat experiences.  If we reflect upon them, we can garner a sense of what is important and a sense of how truly challenging (though also enriching) playing the game can be.

So with organizational leadership, there are rules and there is space for creative performance.  And, there is choice.  We can use that flexibility to reaffirm the “traditional” way of practicing, or we can use it to stretch the bounds of what is considered acceptable.  Just like musicians in an orchestra or jazz ensemble, we can play the traditional tunes or we can improvise something new.  Either way, you still need to attune yourself to the music, as well as to the other players.  At the core of leadership is the capacity for attunement.  

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