Fred Zeidman is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program and a prominent Houston businessman. He is chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Everyone has a favorite permutation of the joke: A gathering of Jews produces more opinions than the number gathered. (My favorite: The United States has one president and 300 million constituents; Israel has one constituent and 6 million prime ministers.) It’s a constant challenge for managing organizations that are important to the Jewish community and that draw heavily on Jewish participation – which is exactly why these groups don’t need lay managers. They need lay leaders. Managers give directions; leaders build consensus. Managers deploy assets to execute the task before them; leaders imagine what that task should be. Managers adapt to change; leaders drive it. Managers solve problems; leaders turn problems into possibilities.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is a Federal institution – not a Jewish museum. But the Jewish community is heavily invested and involved in its success. A majority of the presidential appointees on its Council are Jewish. And the lesson I learned working with them is that the famous Jewish proclivity to strong opinions that gives rise to the old jokes is, properly understood, a strength, not a weakness. Different opinions arise from shared passions. The challenge of leading this kind of organization is identifying those passions and channeling the substantial energies at the table toward them. The result of our effort to do so at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is an extraordinary institution focused on the high-tech and global pursuit of a mission that taps into the deepest passions of the Jewish community: remembrance.
Call it Jewish jujitsu: using potential weaknesses as sources of strength. It’s an idea I learned in Wexner Foundation training, an exceptional – make that indispensable – experience that has served me through decades of service to the Jewish community. The assumption of the “two Jews, three opinions” genre of humor is that we’re an opinionated people – which any manager, at least one filled with truth serum, will admit is an occasional source of, let’s say, challenges. But the alternative to opinions is apathy – a quality that makes an organization easily manageable but entirely pointless. Strong opinions, by contrast, are sure evidence of underlying passion—the lifeblood of any organization, especially one that depends, as the Museum does, on enthusiastic and voluntary commitment.
There were certainly strong opinions when I was appointed in 2002. The challenge was that not all of them pertained to the work at hand. In a room in which everyone but me was appointed by President Clinton – and in the aftermath of the most contentious presidential election in modern history – some were understandably suspicious of a guy not only appointed by but also an old friend of President Bush. Other opinions, equally understandable, pertained to my background: I’m neither a Holocaust scholar nor survivor. Moreover, neither my family nor I had a direct connection to the Holocaust.
We dealt with those in the only way a Jew, a Texan and especially a Jewish Texan can: bluntly and head-on. I acknowledged the political divides and tried to bridge them – a task eased by the unanimous understanding that none of the work we would undertake together was partisan. My standard response to questions about my own background was a frank admission that not only was I not a Holocaust scholar, I wasn’t any kind of scholar.
Acknowledging that those differences existed helped clear the smoke to ensure the most important fact wasn’t obscured: Every person in that room, scholar and layman alike, whether appointed by President Clinton or President Bush, was united in a shared devotion to the Museum’s mission.
But the leadership and management structure of the Museum needed to be better suited to channeling that energy constructively. When I arrived, there was a lack of clarity of the distinct roles for the board and the staff. It was a management structure for which the leaders, me included, were unqualified – and, equally important – one that did not take full advantage of what Council members actually did have to offer. . Redirecting the board’s focus to larger issues, such as strategic planning, long-term vision, and building resource capacity became my key focus – along with building a strong partnership between the staff and the board.
By doing this, we maximized the potential of what is by far the Museum’s greatest asset – its absolutely magnificent professional staff. And as the board became more involved in oversight rather than daily management, the role of individual board members in advancing the overall institution was substantially enhanced.
The benefits were myriad. The professional organization was focused and streamlined enough to execute what the leaders were now able to develop in partnership with the staff: a sustainable vision for the institution as it moves into the 21st century. Now we had a productive object for the opinions and energies that abounded on our Council – especially given two crucial challenges facing the Museum at that juncture.
One was, quite simply, the passage of time. The arithmetic of the calendar was ruthless: The Holocaust was fading into the past at a rapid pace. With it, the physical evidence of the crime was deteriorating or disappearing. And, equally important, a day was quickly approaching when first-hand testimony to the crime would be available only from recordings, writings and other sources a step removed from the most important and inspiring force for remembrance today: the personal testimony of survivors.
We focused the ample energies of the Museum on that challenge with both a world-wide “Rescue the Evidence” initiative – one that has opened archives and produced historic agreements that have pried loose access to millions of documents – and an aggressive effort to acquire personal artifacts from survivors and ensure that their stories would be not only preserved but, more importantly, heard far beyond the Museum’s walls.
The second challenge – closely related to the first – was to fulfill the Museum’s founding mission, articulated by Elie Wiesel, to ensure the lessons of remembrance were meaningfully applied in our world in a way that not merely remembered history but shaped the future. The resurgence of Holocaust denial, the tragedy of 9/11 and the most heart-wrenching crisis we faced during my time at the Museum – the attack on our campus and the murder of Security Officer Stephen Johns by a radical white supremacist – underscored the urgent need for the world to understand where unchecked hate leads.
The result is the accomplishment of which I’m proudest – and for which, again, our professional staff gets more credit than I could justly claim: A 21st century Museum whose impact is felt literally in all 50 states – whether we are educating FBI agents, members of the military, judges, clergy, and teachers – and on every continent. Our web page, now translated into 12 languages, including Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish, documents the Holocaust with irrefutable evidence in the native words of lands where it is being denied and distorted. We are on Face Book, YouTube, Twitter, and Google Earth and beyond. Our Committee on Conscience made history by declaring the tragedy of Darfur a genocide – which helped to catalyze a worldwide response, including from our own government.
There’s a great deal evident in those achievements. The professionalism of our staff is one. The training so many of our leaders – including many of my colleagues on the Council – at Wexner is another. But by far the most important is the absolute and limitless passion so many Jewish leaders bring to the cause of remembrance – as do the many leaders, volunteers, staff and supporters from other traditions give to the Museum’s work. Sure, that passion means an argument or two, and a whole lot more jokes than that. But harness it as a strength, and the Museum demonstrates that there are no limits to what organizations like ours can achieve.