You can’t outsource responsibility

By Todd J. Sukol
It behooves all leaders, and certainly those who are new in their role or are in a new position or organization, to inventory their performance regularly with regard to taking responsibility.

Whether you are in charge of an organization, a department, a team or a project, one of the most important things successful leaders must do is accept responsibility. You will rely heavily on your team to get things done, to be sure, and you will need to stay open to others’ ideas since – believe it or not – they frequently will be better than yours. And yes, there are always unexpected bumps in the road that are totally out of your control. But if you are to be an effective leader you need to start and finish with the premise that the one thing you carry above all is ultimate responsibility.

Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States of America, with his iconic “The Buck Stops Here” desk sign. If he can accept responsibility, so can you.

Using outside contractors is an area where this can be especially challenging. Nonprofit leaders do well to bring in truly expert consultants to augment staff capacity, but there are no magic bullets. The two most common mistakes I see nonprofit execs make (and wink, wink – maybe I myself have made a few times) is to go to one of these two extremes: a. think we know better than the experts and force them do things differently than they recommend; or b. abandon our own common sense and judgement, allowing consultants to impose ill-fitting boiler plate solutions. Both extremes typically end badly. If you were smart enough to hire an expert, be smart enough to listen to them. But at the same time, don’t abdicate responsibility. Be an inquisitive learner. Ask lots of questions. Make sure you understand their recommendations as they relate to the nuances of your particular operation. If you’re dealing with a real expert, they will not be rattled or annoyed by your questions. A great consulting relationship is a partnership, with both parties learning from each other along the way. But make no mistake about it, when it comes to the outcomes your organization experiences, you are responsible

This simple lesson can be as hard to internalize as it is easy to say.

As leaders and managers we facilitate and orchestrate with the big picture in mind. If a piece of our plan falls out of whack, we are the ones with the perspective and power to creatively deploy a compensatory measure to make up for it. We are headed for trouble if we adopt attitudes like: “This would have worked out perfectly if so-and-so were better at her job”; or “it was the consultant’s fault.” There are no perfect employees, no perfect board members or volunteers, no perfect consultants, not even perfect machines. As a leader, it is your job to keep an eye on the big picture – the buck stops with you.

A Yom Kippur Message for the Whole Year: Easy Does It

I’m sharing a slightly modified version of a Yom Kippur thought sent out to Koby Mandell Foundation board members by my dear friend and mentor of many years, Rabbi Seth Mandell. The humility and practicality of it made me smile, and made me feel a little better. Although Yom Kippur is a distant memory at this point, I heard back from numerous people I emailed it to that the message resonated with them big time, not only for Yom Kippur, but as a reminder year round that when it comes to spiritual growth, steady but gentle effort is best. So keep working on yourselves folks, but easy does it….

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By Rabbi Seth Mandell
I have to admit that I am not prepared for Yom Kippur. I have not read inspiring commentaries nor reviewed the prayer book. Nor, sad to say, have I spent time in self examination or enumerated the things I could have done better this year.

Worse perhaps, is that I am singularly untroubled by this. Maybe because I have been occupied with my sons wedding, my toddler grandson’s almost daily progress and my daughters impending birth.

I’m reminded though of my friend who blew the shofar in one of the synagogues in Tekoa this year. I had heard that he was unable to finish even the first round of blasts. The sounds apparently just would not come out. Finally, frustrated, he asked someone else to take over.

Later he told me something interesting. “When I went home and blew the shofar for someone else (who was unable to get to shul) I did it perfectly. Every sound came out smoothly and easily. Must have been the pressure.” he said, referring to his difficulty during the service itself.

I have decided to take heart from this story. Maybe the lack of focus I feel, the lack of serious preparation, is not all bad. Maybe going into this awesome day without feeling the pressure to make it deep and meaningful, without feeling the awe, is not such a bad thing. Perhaps we can go into the day relaxed, taking it as it comes, and simply pray the words of the siddur and let our intention and focus take care of themselves.

My hope is that those of us who are going into Yom Kippur feeling unprepared can let go of our expectations, our critical self-judgement and accept ourselves, our family and friends – and our world – as it is. And maybe that lack of pressure will allow us to pray with a stronger intent, relate to our Creator in a more natural and meaningful way, and – as we accept and forgive our failings and those of others – be accepted and forgiven by the Almighty.

I wish you all a G’mar Chatima Tova – A successful and healthy year

L’Shalom, Seth

Listening for a phrase: Rosh Hashanah 5778

By Todd J. Sukol
As the sun sets on 5777 and final preparations for Rosh Hashanah 5778 are tended to, our attention turns in earnest to the inner work of the coming days and the outlook for the coming year. It is so tempting to use this time of reflection to make a new laundry list of things to work on, new years resolutions as it were. But we know that tiny bits of progress in a multitude of pursuits leaves us feeling empty and accomplishing little. How can we do less and accomplish more in the coming year? What should we be most focused on? What does the world need most from you right now? What is the single biggest contribution you can make to humanity? To the Jewish people? To your community? To your family? To yourself? To your body? Your mind? Your soul? What does G_d want from you above all?

These are questions worth asking over the coming two days of Rosh Hashanah.

For me there is a certain tension between my choice to observe the halachic prohibition against writing during the holidays and my commitment to use the time for personal introspection in service of repentance, renewal and growth. My own approach to the kind of introspective work called for during this season of renewal and repentance almost always includes lots of journal writing as well as prayer and meditation. How can I do the introspective work of Rosh Hashanah without pen and paper in hand? Is the holiday one thing and personal growth another or can traditional Judaism play an integral role in personal growth in an integrated way?

In an age where halacha, Jewish law, is often viewed as anachronistic or irrelevant, I choose to follow it to the best of my ability because I believe in my heart that it matters. Sadly, halacha can at times be observed by rote and become separated from its meaning and deepest value. But uninspired practice is not an indictment of the wisdom of the practice itself. I find that despite my internal resistance, the specific disciplines of halacha, when observed with deliberate intention, often help channel my exertion of effort toward personal and communal growth. Perhaps this Rosh Hashanah can be such an occasion.

My plan for the coming two day holiday is use my time in synagogue to engage in prayer (formal and informal), reading of inspiring material and personal reflection and meditation. Since I won’t be journaling, I’ll have to listen carefully for a common, overarching themes rather than a long list of fixes and resolutions. As I review mentally the past year and rethink my values and priorities, I’ll be opening my ears to G_d, listening for a phrase rather than an essay. Maybe just maybe, I’ll emerge from the process with a singular, simple principle that I can concentrate on in all areas of my life in the coming year.

May it be a year of growth, depth and truth for us all.

In Praise of the Bicycle Workday

By Todd J. Sukol
I recently found this piece of writing in my journal from 2010. At the time I had just started Do More Mission and was experimenting with working all over DC metro from my bicycle. Laptop and cell phone in tow, I worked my way around various parts of the city, Rock Creek Park, the burbs, etc., stopping for 30-90 minutes at a time to work in the woods, in urban parks, at coffee shops, on street corners, benches and grassy fields. It was surprisingly productive and utterly exhilarating. This approach went by the wayside as a team began to emerge around me and the gravitational pull of “the office” got stronger. While physical proximity is important, the sheer physicality and spontaneity of this approach was incredible. I think I’ll book a day of working from my bicycle again sometime this fall. Have a great weekend, all!



From Monday 9/13/2010: I so love riding my bicycle, a passport out of sedentary life. I hop on and within seconds my heart is pumping, my respiration on the rise and my leg muscles cranking. Even my upper body gets its share. I am rocked out of mental slumber and into conscious, alert attention. I am awake.

Before long I’m moving at a speed that makes for a certain safety risk. The cars, the curbs, the protruding roots, the potholes, the gravel, the rocks. All these wonderfully looming assailants give thrill! Be it a country or a city riding day, there are always dangerous things to be aware of. So many things at once popping up without notice. How glorious it is to finally have a productive use for this busy brain of mine! While cranking along in this dangerous domain, having attention everywhere all at once is decidedly an asset. What in other contexts would be called “attention deficit” is suddenly a valuable survival skill. With body and mind fully occupied, my soul can finally relax. I am clear.

I become aware that my movement forward is propelled by a unique partnership between my own physical exertion and this very specialized machine. The modern bicycle may be sophisticated in the design and engineering that guided its evolution, but it’s operation is so simpe that it seems almost primal in our microchip and genome moment in history. At a time when the world seems split between those who worship science at the expense of beauty and those who scorn progress at the expense of true soul, this bicycle is my refuge. It is both machine and nature, modern and authentic, powerful and simple. Today I am neither overly dependent on technology nor pretending to be self-reliant. Partnering with this simple, brilliant machine, I am participating.