You know the biblical saying, “There is no prophet in his own town?” It means that people never listen to experts in their own area. Sometimes it refers to geography, sometimes to philosophy. People don’t trust local experts because we know them already. Answers lie elsewhere. Outsiders can get an aerial view of a situation — the balcony perspective — because they are not dragged down by local politics or the invisible limitations that organizations and individuals put on themselves. There is wisdom in this view, of course, but our use of outside experts can also be an excuse for not doing enough to utilize the people around us.
I have heard this saying, in various permutations, countless times when I travel and ask people about their local Jewish talent. I have heard it used in searches for rabbis and principals, teachers and committed Jewish communal professionals. “There just aren’t good people out there.”
It seems that there is a global conspiracy. Someone is keeping the talent well hidden. I have heard CEOs of Jewish nonprofits use the saying as a justification for why they aren’t doing more, employing more excellent professionals, letting go of dead wood or aren’t acting on a more strategic organizational vision. It’s too hard to find good people. Really? I meet amazing talent all of the time.
I am all for biblical sayings. But here’s the thing. We never said that there is no prophet in our town. It is a biblical saying, but it is not from our Bible. In fact, throughout our own literature — biblical and rabbinic — we always valued the prophet, sage or leader in our own towns. We may not always have listened. We may have shown disrespect, but we never put a sage upon a stage. We put him in a study hall and learned with him. We have passages in the Talmud that advise sages not to wear stained clothes and ripped sandals or take meals with the ignorant, lest people think poorly of our scholars precisely because they lived among us. The Shunamite woman of II Kings, who was regarded as an “important” person, said to the prophet Elisha, “I dwell amongst my people.” Scholars and important people live among us and know us and can, therefore, offer us their wisdom.
In Jewish communal life, we have made a whole religion of consultants. They have become our new high priests. I say this with confidence because I do plenty of consulting. You know how the joke goes. A consultant is someone who takes off your watch to tell you what time it is. Keep your own watch on, I say, and start looking at the people right in front of you who are deeply invested in your community and aren’t flying off in a few hours to impart wisdom in another city that they don’t live in.
In “Good to Great,” the Bible of leadership, Jim Collins talks about grooming inside talent rather than falling for charisma and its liabilities by importing outsiders. Invest locally. Go for the person who has shown you over time how committed he or she is to your enterprise. Find ways to supplement and support learning in place rather than bringing experts in from afar. We need to invest in long-term strategies and long-term professionals. It’s time to follow the saying of Zen Buddhist Hakuin Zenji, “How sad that people ignore the near and search afar, like someone in the midst of water crying out with thirst.” I would have quoted something Jewish but figured you’d pay more attention to a Japanese import.
Actually, I will quote something Jewish because I am not a believer that wisdom comes from the outside in. Just read Deuteronomy: “It is not beyond the sea that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross the sea and get it for us and teach it to us that we may observe it?’ No, it is very close to you…”(30:13-14). You don’t have to look on the other side of the ocean. You may just have to look out the window or better yet, in the mirror.
In the book “Multipliers,” Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown claim that the leader who is a multiplier optimizes talent, stretching people to their maximum output. It’s time we inspire and groom leadership from within through coaching, mentoring, and by creating genuine challenges and raising expectations. Stop looking elsewhere all the time. Our Jewish community spends too much time on search committees and too little time recruiting and retaining the talent we have. Investing in what we have may be the only way we will get from good to great. And if I may offer a recommendation used to justify personal use of “medicinal” plants. If you want great leaders and great professionals, grow your own.
Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at ericabrown.com.