Can Yeshivah take the cultural steps forward?

A wise friend of mine adapted the Harvard-developed negotiation model (seven elements, getting to yes) to articulate a hierarchy of three ways a dispute can be resolved: power, rights and interests.

  • Power is a very effective way to resolve a dispute. For example, a child says “I want to do X”, and their parent says “no”. The dispute is very quickly resolved through the use of power. It works well because of the power imbalance between parent and child (and therefore becomes less and less effective as a child grows up). While it’s a very good way to resolve disputes, one party usually ends up feeling hurt and disempowered through the process.
  • Resolving a dispute using rights is the next step up. Each party to the dispute submits to some standard, such as a contract, the law, or a court of law, and thus the dispute is resolved. This process can take a little longer, but because it relies on a standard, can result in a fairer outcome than the use of power. Still, the process results in one party being deemed ‘right’, and another party being ‘wrong’, which may leave the ‘losing’ party aggrieved by the process.
  • The preferred method of dispute resolution is based on interests. The parties come together (often through a mediator or facilitator) and discuss their interests – what they really want to achieve. This is necessary because the dispute itself is often a shallow veneer covering the real issues between the parties. The Harvard process of understanding interests (and other boundaries relating to the dispute) helps reach an optimal resolution that can leave both parties satisfied with the outcome.

Much of the public discussion about how the Yeshivah Centre can move forward has focussed on the now ubiquitous ‘t-word’ and ‘g-word’ – transparency and governance. What we need to discuss more is our culture: what it is, how it has evolved, and what needs to change.

For decades, the Yeshivah operated with a culture of power: it was concentrated in the hands of a trusted few, and the underlying legal structures were designed to perpetuate it. That is not to suggest that power was abused, or that those in power did not work in the best interests of the community as they understood those interests. Rather, it means that using power to get things done was “the way things are done around here”, which is the definition of organisational culture. The culture also included a sense of entitlement to both lay and Rabbinic leadership, usually based on family relationships (disclaimer: I’m a member of one of the founding families).

Just like power was used to control and operate the institutions, power was used to resolve disputes. After all, people only use the tools available to them: The saying goes: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. In the same way, if the only effective tool generally available to resolve disputes is ‘power’, then that is the tool that is regularly used. While this was able to settle disputes, it was often done in a manner that left people feeling disempowered and disengaged, and developed a general distrust of the organisation’s ability to resolve disputes.

It was this culture of power and entitlement that led to a lack of accountability, a lack of consequences for actions, and little attention to conflicts of interest. It was this culture that slowly gnawed away at the connection between the leadership and the people.

Most synagogues have members, and those members are the seatholders. The Yeshivah Centre (which includes the synagogue) had been governed by a small group of some sixteen members (also known as the trustees), which at latest count has been whittled down to eight. This structure of a small, self-perpetuating governing body is entirely legal and is used by many not-for-profits. But as the organisation grew and developed, the closed culture and closed governance model remained. During Rabbi Groner OBM’s final years and following his passing, the leadership did not take the opportunity to drive the culture forward and move towards the appropriate leadership structure for the organisation. In the absence of that change, a Rabbinic leadership vacuum developed, and the general leadership disconnect worsened.

At Yeshivah, we are customers, not members. The organisation provides a set of services (no pun intended) in consideration for fees and dues, much like Coles provides groceries. We keep going to Coles out of habit, but don’t feel any sense of ownership or connectedness. That is another part of the pervading culture that has been allowed to continue.

In the wake of the Royal Commission case study, we’ve now been presented with two interim committees that are charged with the role of driving the organisation forward over the next six months. While the process articulated for moving forward is quite similar to what I suggested following the RC, the road to this point has been a rocky one.

While the trustees and committee were sorting themselves out, a grass-roots organisation formed – Parents & Friends of Yeshivah Melbourne (PFYM) – which sought to be a representative voice of the people, a voice that has not previously had formal expression (disclaimer: I am a member – one of several hundred). PFYM sought to drive change from the bottom-up, but after a while its efforts were stymied by existing trustees of Yeshivah Centre who were driving a separate agenda for change.

Culture in any organisation flows from the top down. What happened here was that a pre-existing culture of power clashed with a culture of openness and inclusiveness being driven from the bottom up. The outcome was very predictable: the culture of power prevailed, and PFYM were marginalised.

It is not appropriate to prejudge the people who have been appointed; they have several months to fulfil the tasks with which they have been charged, and we look forward to seeing how they go about it and what they come up with. What we can say is the process of their appointment is clear evidence that the organisational culture – as reflected by the actions of the trustees who have ultimate power – has not yet changed.

The challenge before the interim committees and the trustees is to understand the importance of culture as a driver of changes in organisational structure, leadership and governance. If the culture does not change from the very top down, other changes made in parts of the organisation will likely be ineffective and unsustainable.

The challenge for the Yeshivah leadership – existing and nascent – is to understand the culture: what it is, how it has evolved, and what needs to change. That is the prerequisite to taking the necessary steps to drive the change that is needed. The changes required are complex and difficult – they encompass legal structures, leadership, governance, succession planning and much more – but the cultural change is the first step from which all others follow.

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