By: Dani Weiss  | 

President Joel Shares Leadership Lessons with his Class

By: Dani Weiss

Proper leadership remains an abstract subject that is nearly impossible to pin down, yet a vital component to a successful career. Certain historical figures—Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. are just a few examples—stand out as great leaders, figures who stand head and shoulders above others in effecting positive change on a large-scale. The subject that has occupied thinkers throughout the ages is identifying the common denominator that lies between all these people. What qualities do these people possess, how do these qualities relate to leadership, and how can others replicate them?

Students who took President Richard Joel’s Leadership in the Nonprofit World class this past semester had the opportunity to explore these issues, with special attention towards their application to leadership of nonprofit organizations. Although most students in the course didn’t plan on working for nonprofits, many of them were interested in the aspects of nonprofit leadership that were applicable to for-profit businesses and lay leadership.

The course material began with a discussion trying to pinpoint the necessary characteristics of leadership. Among the many suggestions offered by the class were charisma, organizational skills, authority, and decision-making ability. President Joel, however, had a different definition of leadership entirely: Rather than being a person capable of creating followers, a leader is primarily someone who takes responsibility. For example, an anti-social scientist who makes an important discovery in the field of medical research becomes a leader in his field without any of the charisma associated with leaders simply by taking responsibility for the discovery.

But just taking responsibility is rarely enough to entail proper leadership. President Joel asserted that all leaders require two essential tools: a vision and an implementation strategy. While a good vision entails a message that can be communicated to the proper constituency, it should deviate significantly from the status quo to challenge those people.

After developing a worthy vision, a true leader must develop a practical implementation strategy. One major component of developing a strategy comes in procuring a proper mission statement for the organization. A well-formed mission statement provides employees, managers, and executives with a clear benchmark to which they can aspire, and against which they can measure their progress.

President Joel noted that Einstein Medical School was originally created with the mission of providing a place where Jews could be accepted to medical school in an age when Jews couldn’t attend medical school elsewhere. Nowadays, when Jews can readily gain acceptance to mainstream medical schools, Joel noted the importance of reevaluating the mission of the institution to justify its continued existence, especially given the university’s financial straits.

After formally defining leadership, the course progressed to identifying the many ways in which nonprofits differ from other types of organizations. Among the topics covered were nonprofits’ alternate sources of revenue (donors), their relationship to the government, and the difficulties involved in measuring results (material wealth is markedly easier to quantify than social wealth).

To supplement the lecture-based classes, students had the opportunity to hear from various leaders in the nonprofit sector. Guest speakers included Provost Selma Botman, VP of the Board of Trustees Ira Mitzner, and COO of Montefiore Hospital Dr. Philip Ozuah.

Besides discussing leadership in the abstract, President Joel shared many concrete examples from personal experiences in his tenure at YU and Hillel. In fact, he dedicated the entire first class to recounting stories of his childhood, how he met his wife, his tenure at Hillel, and his eventual arrival at YU. Students heard of both his successes and challenges and had the opportunity to ask follow-up questions to that end.

One major topic of discussion revolved President Joel’s perspective on the university’s current financial struggles, his reaction to the constant barrage of ensuing criticism, and his plans to strengthen the university’s financial standing for the future. Natan Szegedi, a Syms senior who took the course, noted that he was “impressed with President Joel’s openness and honesty” on discussing such personal aspects of his life with the class.

While most students had positive reactions to the course, some students did have certain critiques. For example, one student (who chose to remain anonymous) was rather upset by the lack of class participation. “When I signed up for the course, I figured that people would be really excited to get involved in the class discussions. But for some reason many of the students just sat in the back of the classroom, rarely participating.”

Most students were left with positive impressions of the class. Sam “Shmooz” Weinstein, an avid participant in the class, said the following: “I think President Joel taking time to teach the student body shows how passionate he feels about the organization that he leads. Although there was a set curriculum, I gained the most from the President's off the record, from the heart-to-heart lessons that he gave over to us on a regular basis. He's a man who has tremendous leadership abilities, charisma, and influence, and that made his class on leadership all the more educational.”

Indeed, a common sentiment among members of the class was one of gratitude for President Joel to put forth the time and effort to share his experiences with the student body.