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What Is Leadership, Really?

Former state rep offers ideas to improve the way things happen at the top.


The nature and importance of leadership during uncertain times was the topic of former State Representative Jay Kaufman’s presentation at an interactive Zoom conversation February 25 presented by BC Law’s Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy.

Following his 24-year tenure as a representative for the 15th Middlesex District, Kaufman founded the Beacon Leadership Collaborative as a means to work directly with individuals and organizations engaged in government, public policy, advocacy, and community-building on developing the skills, sensibilities, courage, and agility needed for transformative leadership. 

His motivation for empowering and inspiring others to lead comes from his upbringing and the harsh realities he’s discovered throughout his life and career in politics.

As the firstborn son of immigrant parents who escaped Nazi Germany late in the 1930s, Kaufman said his initial view of America differs drastically from what he sees today. “In the air I breathed growing up was a sense of this country as having saved their lives and having been the city on the hill, the great democracy, the great hope for the future; because that is absolutely what it was for them,” he said. “What I didn’t know until recently is that the air was also dense with their suffering and pain.”

Kaufman came of age in the 1960s, a time, like this, of great uncertainty and disruption. “The largest focuses for that disruption were our then-attempt to come to terms with our long history of racial prejudice and injustice, and then the small matter of our international intervention with the war in Vietnam, which was a colossal mistake,” he said.

That similar disruptions persist is a reminder to Kaufman of the ongoing need for increased effort.

“In common speech and even in a lot of political science we usually conflate leadership and authority, and the point I want to make is that leadership and authority are two very different kinds of things.”

—Jay Kaufman, Beacon Leadership Collaborative founder

“I had this ideal America in mind and in heart as I was growing up and then the reality didn’t look anywhere close to ideal, and I was painfully aware of how short we were—off the mark,” said Kaufman. “I associate that with coming to public life and coming to my adult life with a mix of youthful idealism that still won’t quite go away, and profound anger about all the work we still have to do.”

Kaufman noted that despite his optimism and motivation many of his efforts at the State House fell flat because of the flawed leadership model and lack of understanding regarding the true nature of certain challenges and the correct way to attack them. 

“In the legislature I discovered that there is a lot of room for improvement. The leadership model was and is very much a patriarchal model, a top-down-model—I have control, you don’t; I know what to do, you’re wise to follow the leader,” said Kaufman. “That’s the culture, and as I understand it. That culture has only gotten worse over the last couple generations.” He said his biggest regret is that so much more could have been done, and that those who raised tough questions often found themselves marginalized.

He explained how this model of leadership holds true no matter who is in charge, alluding to the similarities in both Trump and Biden’s use of executive authority. “The number of executive orders coming out of the Oval Office would confound our founders. They never imagined anything close to the kind of imperial presidency we have now,” said Kaufman. “I think they would be equally upset with the ‘go along to get along’ mentality that helps shape the culture of the legislature.” 

So how can we avoid seeing future state representatives and community leaders with the same regrets? Kaufman believes change starts by understanding two critical distinctions, the first being between leadership and authority.

“In common speech and even in a lot of political science we usually conflate leadership and authority, and the point I want to make is that leadership and authority are two very different kinds of things,” said Kaufman. 

By his definition, authority entails the promise of direction, protection, and order, while leadership entails taking us out of our comfort zone and engaging us in difficult conversations about matters that we might not want to confront, but that we need to confront.

The second distinction, according to Kaufman, is between technical and adaptive challenges.

With a technical challenge you have a clear understanding of the nature of the problem and someone in authority to solve the problem; everyone else is along for the ride. Kaufman referred to the development of a Covid-19 vaccine as an example of a technical challenge. 

On the other hand, he said, “an adaptive challenge is what we are now seeing with Covid as we are waiting for a vaccine. The need to change our behavior, the need for hearts and minds to adapt to a reality we hadn’t anticipated and that is new and very importantly threatening—the work is ours to do. Leaders and authority can give us advice, they can tell us what to do, but we will react to that as we will.” 

He cited the global climate crisis and the nation’s history of systemic racism as additional examples of adaptive challenges that remain undefeated.

Kaufman’s theory is that unleashing effective leadership is more complicated than making those two distinctions. It revolves around devoting resources to the right areas and using an approach that corresponds to the nature of the challenge. Finding common ground on such decisions, however, is increasingly difficult in today’s divided political climate, as Kaufman sees it.

One way to avoid pushback from opposing party members is to be skillful in the language you use when communicating the issue at hand. “Certain jargon can create a defensive reaction, and it’s important to be aware of that,” said Kaufman. 

With the need for widespread improvement of leadership at the community, corporate, and political level at an all-time high, Kaufman concluded the discussion with a message to current and future leaders about how they can develop their own style to bring about positive change. 

“There’s a lot of debate over whether leadership can be taught or not. I don’t know whether it can be taught, but I do know that it can be learned, and knowing how to get your footing and who to surround yourself with to increase your chances of being effective and doing important work, that is the art of politics,” said Kaufman. “I don’t know of a better way to do that other than being very conscientious, very conscious, exercising good judgment and learning from your mistakes.”