As we celebrate the days of z’man simhatenu, our season of joy, and each dwell in our respective sukkah under the stars, we have been contemplating the powerful lessons that Sukkot teaches us: the nature of impermanence, the power of welcoming, and the value of gathering together as a family and a community. This year, as we studied together the meaning of Sukkot, we were also reminded of the important combination of builders and dwellers, of leaders and followers, and how, together, they help create inspiring communities.
What makes Sukkot so fascinating to us, especially as a metaphor for leadership and followership, is that one can fulfill the essential rituals and requirements of Sukkot even if one does not build a sukkah entirely by oneself or lead the construction of the sukkah. In fact, by decorating the sukkah, dwelling in it, welcoming guests within it and celebrating the festival and blessings of Sukkot, one can fulfill the mitzvot of Sukkot (and, importantly, help others observe the mitzvot associated with dwelling in a sukkah).
In many ways, Sukkot captures an important aspect of our community that we observe time and time again. Some individuals seek to be builders, while others seek to decorate what has already been built. Some are comfortable taking a leading role in creating community; others welcome being invited to dwell within community experiences and being engaged as participants.
Some individuals seek to be builders, while others seek to decorate what has already been built
As Allison Fine, co-author (with Beth Kanter) of “The Networked Nonprofit,” has presciently noted, “We hear so much about individual and organizational leadership and so little about the importance of good followership.” Followership in this sense is not simply demonstrating a blind willingness to follow, but actually supporting and enabling effective, positive leadership.
The field of followership and its intersection with leadership is still in its relatively early days, but the beacon scholars of the field, such as Barbara Kellerman from the Harvard Kennedy School, are gaining traction. Kellerman’s course “Followership” is one of Harvard’s most well-attended courses and the fact that she is a part of the well-acclaimed Center for Public Leadership indicates the increasing importance of the field.
It is also a thought that has been part of the vision of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation from its earliest days. In a 2010 article, our colleague Sandy Cardin advocated for the emergence of a new generation of programs in which the primary focus is on those who participate, not on those who lead. He recalls the late Charles Schusterman (z”l) saying to him in 1999: “What I think we need are some ‘followership’ programs. Go find me some of those to fund.”
Indeed, in many ways, leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin, both integral to efforts to create change in today’s world. Change agents are those who have ideas, can mobilize people around them and are capable of executing in the face of challenges and obstacles. But they are also those who devote their skills, time and resources to being an integral part of a team and ensuring that the ideas they are passionate about — even if they are not their own — are brought to life.
In our travels, as we have met (and dwelled) with young adults around the world, we have sensed an increasing need for valuing the latter in our community. While there is always a need to provide those who are motivated with the tools and resources to pursue their leadership journeys, we must also provide programs that support the motivation, capacity and competency of those who seek to meaningfully engage, even if they don’t want to prominently lead.
Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin, both integral to efforts to create change in today’s world
Just as we celebrate our leaders, we should be responsible in the way we celebrate followers. As we learn from the insightful video, “The Power of the First Follower,” leaders need to have the wisdom to treat the first follower as an equal, and by doing so, recognize the true value of followership as an essential element of success.
Which brings us back to these celebratory days of Sukkot. What if one built a sukkah but nobody came? Could one still fulfill all of the requirements of Sukkot? We think not — the mitzvah of hahnasot orhim, the welcoming of guests and strangers, is also a mitzvah that helps make Sukkot a holiday of celebration and community. It is even better when those guests reflect the rich diversity of our community. Like the four species that are held together as we say the blessings over the lulav and the etrog, it takes the interconnection of all types to create a truly joyous experience.
So yes, it takes a leader to build a sukkah, but it takes both the builders and the dwellers, the connectors, creators and decorators, to help make Sukkot, as well a strong, vibrant and interconnected community that we can all embrace in 5773 and beyond.
Hag Sukkot sameah!
Seth Cohen and Yaniv Rivlin work together at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which is part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, a global network of philanthropic initiatives focused on igniting the passion and unleashing the power in young people to create change for themselves, in the Jewish community and across the broader world. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.