During the golden years for Hasidism in Eastern Europe in the late 1800’s there were abundant thriving Hasidic communities that flourished under the leadership of a strong leader.  Each community selected a leader based on their demonstrating strong leadership qualities.  In a nod to ‘nature’  in the nature vs. nurture argument, believing leadership qualities are passed from father to son, the mantle of leadership was passed through from father to the son.

The leader of each community (known colloquially as the ‘Rebbe’, or ‘Teacher’) was typically a wise and patient man, whose dominant personality trait was evident within the community.  For example, in one community a stranger might be greeted warmly several times on his way through the town and know that the ‘Rebbe’s’ dominant personality trait was likely ‘Kindness’.  In another, he might be engaged in philosophical discussion and know that it is ‘Wisdom’, while in a third, he might overhear the townspeople discussing the latest self-control/personal development techniques and know that it is ‘Strength’.

If this sounds cultish to you, the process of the Rebbe’s dominant personality trait spilling over into the community was an organic one that was more the byproduct of the Rebbe teaching and acting towards the simple townspeople in the manner that he ‘knows best’ by consistently emphasizing a particular trait in his daily teachings and behavior around his people.  His personality was typically a strong and dynamic one and his leadership qualities inspired people to volitionally follow in his footsteps.

Parallels to Modern-Day Organizations

While we might not have predicted it to be true, there are many parallels between the dynamics of the 19th century Eastern Europe village and modern day corporations.  Both have hierarchical structures.  Both have members of the community that serve distinct roles and are vital to the functioning of the society as a whole.  And, perhaps most importantly, both have leaders at the top of the organization that set the tone for the organization as a whole.

Cultural Tone set by Leadership Comes Through in Organizations Interactions

In fact, I’d argue the tone the leader sets can be so impactful in an organization (arguably more so in small to mid-size companies, but even in large organization) that if a group of scientists landed from Mars today and analyzed the email interactions of the organization as a whole they could draw accurate conclusions about the personality/leadership structure of the organization’s leader. Anyone who has spent time in both types of organizations will agree that the tone of communication and interpersonal behavior in the organization largely follows that of the leader.  If the leader sets a tone that is friendly and respectful and conveys that the employees are valued, employees will largely interact with each other in the same manner.  If not, they will follow suit.  (This is a principle that can be applied to ‘mini-organizations’ within the organization too, such as a corporate division or department.)

In our made up study, if the ‘equipment’ were sensitive enough there might be three general kinds of organizational interaction styles the Mars scientists’ equipment would observe:

  • Collaborative/Friendly
  • Non-Collaborative/Non-Friendly
  • Chaotic

The first two are self-explanatory.  The third might be the kind of environment the equipment explains is the result of the organizational leader not setting a tone of any kind.  That is, the organization’s members interact in a chaotic manner, with some behaving collaboratively, and some in an every-man-for-himself manner. The idea here, is that no-choice when it comes to setting an organizational tone is in fact, a choice itself.

A Collaborative/Friendly Tone Requires Deliberate Creation

The collaborative organization who’s members go out of their way to help each other and strive collectively toward a common goal requires the deliberate creation by the leader—it will not typically manifest itself spontaneously from a collection of humans. Considering the lost productivity created from organizational infighting, however, there is arguably no more significant organizational leadership endeavor.  Yet to their own detriment, organizations do not focus on it, often because there is no real metric for measuring a collaborative environment so that if it is even considered, it is dismissed and perceived to not be impactful.  Here an organizations blindly subscribing to the dictum ‘anything worth doing is worth measuring’ in fact proves itself to be a concept that is detrimental to the organization.

Yes, it can be difficult for a new organizational leader to come into an organization and uproot an embedded culture that is anti-collaboration, but it can be done.  This missive is therefore primarily aimed at startup and organizations in early growth phases whose leaders have the opportunity to establish a collaborative and friendly culture.

19th Century Hasidim Reminds Us Organizational Tone is Set at the Top

Returning to the Hasidim–while the talented and intelligent members of the modern day corporation are far from simple townspeople, we do share with our town-living 19th century predecessors, the characteristic of following the interactive tone set at the top of our organizations.  The degree to which the ‘Rebbe’ influenced the interactions in the town is an example at the more extreme end of the influence spectrum, but in the busy modern-day corporation where stepping back to see the bigger picture can be difficult, analyzing  an extreme example can help to  draw out the significance of the influence at the top.

While it’s arguably more relevant in smaller organizations (such as the 21st century start-up) than larger ones, the personality of the top leader will inevitably permeate the organization and define its internal interactions.

Conclusions That Apply to Organizations, Big and Small

In recognizing that the tone of an organization is set at the top, what can the modern-day organizational leader do to ensure the tone he/she is setting is sending the right message to his/her people?

  • Define the Tone You Want to Set.  Then Takes Steps to Do So.
    A leader needs to intentionally and specifically sit down and define the internal tone of the organization.  What culture/tone do you want for your organization?  No choice is in fact a choice itself.  You are setting a cultural tone in your organization whether you are aware of it or not, so you might as well take the time to figure out what you want and intentionally set it.
  • Every Interaction at the Top of the Organization Contributes to the Overall Tone
    Think of every bit of your behavior as an organizational leader as contributing to a cultural tone–maybe positive, maybe negative.  Did the human resources policy I just sign off on tell my people they are as important to me as the manufacturing equipment that makes the widgets we sell?On the flip side, did spontaneously closing the office the day before a holiday after telling my people it’s because I appreciate all their hard work contribute positively to the organizational tone?  Every interaction a leader has contributes to the cultural tone in their organization.  Manage your organization as though there are dozens/hundreds/thousands of eyes and ears listening, evaluating and even mimicking every interaction you have.  Because there is.
  • Personal Development is Key
    If a leader’s personality sets the tone for an organization, there is arguably no endeavor more worth devoting consistent time and attention for a top leader than personal development.  This is true for organizational leaders and micro-organizational leaders such as department heads and managers.  After all, if my personality permeates the organization that I run, the more I can improve myself, the greater the impact on the organization.  This is one of an infinite number of ways we can demonstrate how business success is intimately tied to personal development.  I intend to write more on the subject in the future.

Although 19th century Eastern Europe is far removed from the hustle and bustle of the modern 21st century corporation, there is a great deal to learn about organizational leadership from Hasidic leadership of that time.  Those who pay attention to the lessons they teach us will be best positioned to benefit from the healthy culture of a collaborative and focused organizational environment.


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