Parashat Sh’mot: How Should Leaders Listen?
Pick up any leadership manual, and you’ll find the same suggestion for new leaders: spend your first several months listening and learning. As Gann Academy’s new Head of School, I have taken this advice to heart, and have spent the past year meeting with dozens of current students, parents, alumni, alumni parents, teachers, staff, community members, and colleagues from Schechter and other partner schools.
As with any type of listening, the hardest part is remaining quiet. It is so easy to jump in, to interrupt, and to interject—especially in an effort to build rapport and deepen relationships. But there is such a power in hearing the entire arc of the story unfold, without intervening to shape the narrative. Our Western, post-Enlightenment brains have been wired to solve problems and to fix challenges. It requires tremendous discipline to let the words settle in without jumping to resolution. If we don’t listen fully, we risk not understanding deeply. At the same time, a leader who does not act decisively may lose his or her constituents in the process.
This dilemma of leadership plays out in our parasha this week as we begin the second book of the Torah, Sh’mot (Exodus). In the famous scene at the burning bush, G-d says to Moshe: “I have heard the cries of the Israelites.” The Hebrew word used is שמעתי, Shamati, coming from the verb לשמוע, L’shmoah, to hear. This is the same verb that we use to start the Sh’ma, the central prayer in our Tefilot.
Thus begins, with this critical act of hearing and listening to the cries of the Israelites, one of the most significant moments in Jewish history—G-d’s intervention in freeing the slaves from Egypt. In this case, the cries of the Israelites were so poignant, so painful, that G-d heard and did try to fix and to act. We read the Torah and almost hear the cries ourselves.
As Gann students beautifully leyn the parasha this coming week in our Z’man Kodesh (many of whom learned to chant the Torah at Schechter and at other wonderful Jewish Day Schools), the words of Sh’mot resonate deeply for me in a new way. How do we teach our students to listen deeply, and to balance listening with action?
Dalia Hochman ’92, Gann Academy Head of School, Schechter Parent