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Succession planning is an integral piece of your leadership portfolio

This essay was first published on the Reform Judaism blog on July 6, 2015.

In the Torah portion Pinchas, God instructs Moses,

“Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.”

Although Moses had a marvelous opportunity to see where he had led his people, the act of taking the Israelites across the border – and fighting for the milk and honey – was left to the next generation of leaders.

Indeed, part of being a good leader is knowing to ask (and helping to answer) the question, “What will success look like?” In other words, what do milk and honey look like, both literally and metaphorically? Moses faced this question on Mount Abarim; synagogue leaders face it during every board meeting and on all the days in between.

In Moses’ case, success was looking down over the Promised Land after leading the Israelites on the 40-year journey to get them to the border. It wasn’t his job to lead them further. Likewise, being a synagogue leader doesn’t necessarily mean it’s our responsibility to implement the congregation’s vision. We can start the process, but ultimately it’s not our job to own the plan forever. It is natural to expect that others will follow us in leadership roles.

Pirkei Avot teaches, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” – and for temple leaders, there’s no better teaching. Just as Moses did not complete the work of bringing his people into the Promised Land, it’s not always our job to complete the tasks of this board or that committee. Trustees will vote on budgets in 2025 and 2035 and 2045. They will write new strategic plans and make important decisions for years and years into the future.

As congregational leaders, we have to remember that we’re working for the long-term – and although we can see the future, we will not necessarily lead others there. As Moses asks God to “appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd,” so, too, must we ask, “Who will lead the temple once we’ve moved on from our committees or reached our term-limit on the board?”

Parashat Pinchas reminds us that just as Moses and God drafted Joshua to succeed Moses, part of our leadership responsibility is to envision and ensure a future in which others – with the potential and know-how to be good leaders – follow in our footsteps. Even as we boldly approach today’s projects and challenges, preparing for a leadership transition is an equally essential part of our job.

How did your predecessors prepare for the transition to a new generation of congregational leaders? How are you preparing for the next generation of leadership in your congregation?

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