Noah, Righteous Caregiver - 10.23.2014

It is difficult to imagine the scenario that confronted Noah at the onset of this week’s torah portion. He was born in an era of decadence and corruption, so much so that the world into which he entered was to be completely destroyed. Noah was selected to be the new Adam, a second progenitor of all humanity in the post-deluvian period that would represent a clean break from the sinful ways of his ancestors.

But it was not sufficient for the righteous Noah to sit back and watch Hashem carry out His decree of destruction. Instead, Noah was tasked to do something that no one else would ever be required to do in the annals of humanity. He was to build an ark of sizable proportions and use it to shelter thousands of creatures from the destructive waters of the flood. Moreover, he was to build this ark over a period of 120 years, a lengthy time period designed to allow him to influence others towards change and repentance. Lastly, he was to care for and subdue all of the animals in the ark, which included the collection and distribution of food for the countless species under his care. And he was to attend to their needs for many months, while practically ignoring his own essentials during that protracted time.

This last task was one that surely would have overwhelmed even the world’s most gifted and energetic zookeeper. Certainly, it was an overwhelming task for an aged, righteous man who likely never engaged in any meaningful animal rearing during his first six centuries of life. What was it about Noah that prepared him for this daunting task? What qualities did he possess that allowed him to step into the role of savior and help perpetuate not only mankind, but the entire animal kingdom as well?

While the Torah offers no direct answers to these questions, a few hints can be gleaned that may offer us some additional understanding. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Bereishis 6:9) analyzes the descriptions of Noah offered in the introductory verse. The verse calls him an “ish tzadik, tamim,” a righteous man who was perfect.  Rabbi Hirsch explains that each term, ish, tzaddik and tamim, independently signify unique aspects of his greatness.

Ish does not simply mean “man.” Any time that the Torah uses this designation, it testifies to the person’s distinction from his peers. The term tzaddik attests to his righteousness, an innate desire to meet the needs of others and ensure that they are adequately cared for. Tamim means that Noah had achieved moral perfection. And while these three accolades would be impressive in any age, it was a particularly special designation to receive a time of historic moral turpitude. By introducing the episode of the flood with a detailed description of Noah’s special character, the Torah may be teaching us that these qualities were most helpful in allowing Noah to meet his many responsibilities during this most trying period, by instilling confidence in those that he served, including even the animals under his jurisdiction.

Noah’s caring character was on clear display after the waters had begun to abate (see Bereishis 8:6ff).  He sought to determine whether the ground had dried sufficiently for him to disembark and first sent a raven from the ark’s window. (According to Rabbi Hirsch, the raven represented a bird of the wild. If it were to return, which it did, then the earth was still far from inhabitable.) He then sent a dove, which was unable to find any resting place during its first journey. At the end of its second attempt seven days later, it brought back an olive branch, which symbolized its deep quest for freedom. (Our sages say that the bitter olive branch demonstrated that bitterness tasted in the context of freedom is far sweeter than sweetness tasted in a state of dependence.) Noah mercifully extended his arms to bring the tired bird back to him, and would release him for good one week later, despite having already received the information that he had sought. It was simply unjust for him to keep the dove in the ark after it had tasted the sweetness of freedom.

His humility was displayed a short time afterwards. When the earth had finally dried (Ibid, 15ff), Noah awaited formal permission to disembark, despite having endured extreme hardship for an extensive period. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that it would have been unconscionable for Noah to leave the ark sooner. He had entered through divine command and would leave in the same manner.

People seek many qualities in their leaders. Of course, they look to leaders for guidance, direction and support. They want to be assured that the individual who is leading them possesses the wherewithal to achieve the task at hand and direct them along a path of success. But people also want to know that their leader is a person of great character. They seek leaders who care deeply for their charges and remain properly rooted, focused, committed and balanced throughout even the most intense challenges. Knowing that the leader is fully invested in others’ successes and prioritizes their needs gives his followers a great degree of confidence and encourages their compliance through thick and thin.

Don't let e-mail become e-fail - SmartBlog on Leadership 10.13.2014

“I was discussing the use of email and how impersonal it can be; how people will now email someone across the room rather than go and talk to them.” ~ Margaret J. Wheatley, writer and management consultant

If there was one area where I got hit hard at the beginning of my tenure as school leader, it was communication. The first complaint related to my style, which was seen as being too impersonal. I was heavily involved with my BlackBerry, texting and e-mailing regularly (even in meetings and while sitting in on classroom observations) to reach out or respond to various constituents. Though my objectives were lofty (I wanted to as readily accessible and responsive as possible), I was seen by some as being too digitized and distracted. This was, in part, because my predecessor rarely e-mailed. Nor did he text much or own a smartphone.

We all know the reasons that we type so many of our correspondences instead of write them down on a piece of paper. It’s often faster, it’s neater, and it can easily be saved and categorized for future reference without paper-sifting and clutter. Electronic communications can be shared far and wide and allow us to reach out and reply when it works for us, not having to be concerned as much with the other’s schedule and readiness to communicate.

Despite the many benefits of e-communication, it can also presents some meaningful downsides. These include:

  1. Misinterpretation. So much of the way that we normally share information and ideas is based on nonverbal communication. Inflections, hand gestures, facial tone, body positioning and the like say so much about how each party is receiving and responding to each other, as well as their passion for the information and ideas being shared. Without hearing a voice or seeing nonverbal cues, people struggle to properly discern the intended meaning, tone, value and emphasis.

A study by Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago sought to determine how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. The results of their study was that not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but recipients also overrate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.

  1. Impersonal touch. No matter how thoughtfully an email is crafted, its digital nature makes it feel distant and impersonal. You simply cannot compare the feel of an e-mail with that of a face-to-face chat or a phone call.

  2. Raising the temperature. For most of us, distance makes it feel safer to “yell” or to be critical. We can more easily muster up the gumption to criticize when we are typing words on our personal keyboards than when we have to look someone in the eye and share our feelings. Furthermore, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.

  3. You can’t get it back. The quick nature of e-mail makes it easy to forget that our words actually matter and can really come back to bite us. (I suggest that you never send any e-mail with potentially negative implications without first showing it to one or two trusted colleagues). Not only must we worry about how our message will be processed “in the moment,” but there is a chance that it will be forwarded or printed for others to see as well

  4. Keeping your distance. Perhaps worst of all, e-mail, IM and other e-communiqués maintain distance between colleagues, sometimes even when only a wall or cubicle separate them physically. It’s often easier to fire off a response than to get up and share a few words. You may also want to not disturb your busy co-workers, especially if they are in another conversation or on the phone. While all of that is laudable, it’s important to not fall into the habit of remaining distant. Personal rapport keeps relationships strong, even in the face of conflict.

As our jobs involve working with and getting things done with people, we have to be able to build healthy relationships. This requires a healthy dose of ongoing, in person interactions, to get to know each other in real terms and how we each tick.

How to use feedback to your advantage - SmartBlog on Education 10.10.2014

We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve. – Bill Gates

As a teacher, you will certainly be the recipient of some negative feedback, solicited or otherwise. The comments may focus in on your teaching style, how well you communicate, whether a child likes you, etc. Even if the remark was delivered with constructive intent, you may resent the experience and develop a negative view of a parent, child or administrator.

It is important to remember that there is nothing to be gained from harboring negative thoughts. Almost every form of criticism can teach us something powerful about ourselves. The next time that someone approaches you with some unwanted feedback consider doing the following:

  1. Listen well. Hear them out without interruption. Mirror back what you heard for clarification. If there is something that you disagree with, hold it until the end. This way you validate them and open further lines of communication. It’s always best for the concern to come directly to you rather than to others.
  2. Respond carefully. Try to avoid sounding defensive. Leave your ego to the side and accept warranted concerns as well as viable advice. If you are unsure about the validity of feedback or what to do with it, ask for time to respond. Make sure to get back to the other party in a timely fashion and with a real game plan (see below). Ask for feedback about the plan.
  3. Thank them. Let them know that you appreciate the fact that they brought this matter to you and didn’t go around you. They easily could have; it would have been less risky and more comfortable. Let them know that you appreciate this growth opportunity that they have given you.
  4. Seek more feedback. Chances are that others also have opinions about the matter at hand. Seek out people whose opinion you trust and try to gauge the broader truth. Just how widespread is this concern?
  5. Do something. This may be the hardest part. No one likes to change, especially if we already have a plan in place and are well along in its execution. Seek to identify, alone or with a trusted confidant or coach, a set of actions that can help you grow as a lead. Then make sure to get back with the concerned party about what you have decided so that they feel validated and also do not add more grist to the mill.

We all want to hear that we’re doing well. Feedback is the breakfast of champions and positive comments can really put wind behind our sails. But no one wants to be an emperor without clothes, or, worse yet, a dethroned emperor. Whether the feedback that you receive was solicited or not, be sure to make good use of it, so that you can lead an inspired and engaged team forward.