What is the State of Your Mindset? Becoming a Superb Supervisor

As an Assistant Rabbi in a mid-sized congregation Devora Silver (name fictionalized) excelled at being an inspiring writer, insightful teacher, compassionate pastor, and innovative developer of programs. Devora spent the first decade of her career receiving lots of praise and enriching the lives of her congregants by “doing” the work of rabbi-ing.

When the opportunity arose, Devora accepted a senior position at a mid-sized congregation with an Assistant Rabbi, Cantor, and Educator. In preparation, she read some books about supervision and sat down with a few colleagues who gave her some tips for managing others.

Six months into the new job Devora knew something wasn’t working. Her colleagues and board members criticized her for “micro-managing.” She was working extraordinarily long hours, not only doing her job but doing others’ jobs as well. When asked about this by the congregational President, she would say, “I have a strong background in curriculum development so it’s best if I redesign the confirmation class” or “I need to make sure nothing goes wrong, so I’m going to officiate at this ceremony.” Although Devora had the skills and the smarts to succeed as a senior rabbi, something was lacking – a supervisory mindset. She had not made the mental shift from thinking like an individual contributor to thinking like a “player-coach.”

Like Devora, many rabbis believe that becoming a great senior is a matter of learning some new managerial skills. But while skills are essential for supervisory success they are insufficient. Here are four questions to assess the state of your mindset. On a scale of 1 to 10, to what extent do you agree with the following statements?

  1. I feel most fulfilled when I am achieving outcomes and enriching congregants’ lives through the efforts of others on my team. This question helps you assess your source of self-esteem – the kinds of activities from which you gain your sense of personal worth and contribution. The most effective supervisors gain an equal if not greater sense of fulfillment by achieving results through others’ efforts.
  2. I believe it is important to delegate to people who are not necessarily as talented as I am at doing a particular task. This question is about comfort with delegation and your willingness to have something achieved at a different level of quality (often, not even noticeable to congregants) in order to support someone’s professional growth.
  3. I am comfortable defining goals and success standards, and then letting go of “how” a team member goes about achieving what’s been assigned. Your answer this question is an indicator of your need to control details and have things done the way you would do them.
  4. Whenever necessary, I deliver difficult messages to members of my team in ways that might cause them to feel uncomfortable – even dislike or resent me. Rabbis in particular struggle with this one because their identity is so tied to easing suffering. However, as a supervisor you must sometimes cause discomfort in others in order to foster accountability and drive change. This question is about overcoming your need to be liked.

As a senior rabbi, you will always be an individual contributor. That won’t change. But what must change over the course of your career, if you hope to lead others, is your mindset. Can you learn to feel satisfied by achieving goals through others’ direct efforts rather than through your own? Can you let go of the details and delegate to people who will do the job differently, even less skillfully than you would? Are you willing to deliver a difficult message which may elicit anger, sadness or even conflict? To the extent that you struggle with the answers to these questions, stepping into a supervisory role becomes more than the next career challenge. It becomes a journey of psychological and spiritual development – one that inevitably invites you into deeper levels of self-awareness and creativity.

Larry Dressler is the founder of Blue Wing Consulting and an author of two books on collaborative leadership. He serves as an advisor and teacher to Reform rabbis around the country. Larry has worked with emerging leaders and teams in diverse organizations, including at Nike, Facebook, Auburn Seminary, and the Global Greengrants Fund.


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