Learning to lead with Rae Ringel

Photo courtesy of Rae Ringel

There are very few things that a person can control. Rae Ringel said the job of a leader is to help ground people in the things they can control.

“Those are the ways that we think,” said Ringel, a Washington executive coach. “It’s the thought habits that dominate our lives, how we choose to think and reframe things, what perspective we have, how we communicate with people.”

Since she founded the Ringel Group 20 years ago, Ringel, 50, has coached leaders on how to be better managers, have more executive presence and build relationships.

Ringel’s career began as the director of training at United Jewish Communities — now the Jewish Federations of North America. She says she has worked with hundreds of Jewish organizations over the last 20 years.

As lead facilitator and consultant for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Jewish Community Leadership Program, she works with community volunteers positioned for significant lay leadership roles. Ringel said participants have a demonstrated history of strong leadership, and a commitment to drive change in their organizations and in the Jewish community.

She said she has trained many lay and professional leaders of Jewish organizations how to tell a compelling organizational narrative and how to overcome their fear of fundraising.

“Many Jewish leaders work in organizations that are inextricably linked to their Jewish values and are therefore extremely passionate and committed to their work,” Ringel said.

The life of a leader has changed markedly since the pandemic began, she said. Leaders need to offer their businesses, agencies and communities a mix of challenge and hope, she said. They should continue to push their employees while also infusing hope that this too shall pass.

A member of Ohev Sholom — the National Synagogue in Washington, Ringel received her master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University in New York. She said, that while leaders traditionally had to know how to command a room, today’s managers need to be savvy both in person and online.

Because of the added distractions and stressors people can experience at home, Ringel said bosses need to check in with people and take “temperature checks” a lot more than they used to.

Right now, Ringel said it is important for leaders to be very intentional about how they’re spending people’s time. When a manager brings people together to meet, Ringel said it has to be carefully designed to capture people’s attention span, as well as to be dynamic and energizing.

“People need to have fun,” Ringel said. “People need to feel good. And you can feel good even when you’re doing the hard work.”

Even while in a Zoom meeting. Last month, Ringel published an essay in the Harvard Business Review called “Please Stop Using These Phrases in Meetings.” Among them, “You’re on mute.” (“It makes the person on the receiving end of the comment feel silly, as though [two years into widespread remote work] they still don’t know how to locate the button with the microphone icon.) And, “We’re building the plane while flying it.” (“If that’s the case, your plane will crash!”)

“In meetings, people are looking to leaders for clarity and for validation,” Ringel said. “And that’s what we want to give them. We don’t want to have throwaway statements that will make people feel unclear and have a lack of direction.”

She said the deeper message she wanted to convey was, in a world where there’s so little we can control, we have agency over how we speak, and people should be more careful about what they’re saying.

“So if you want to honor people’s time and get the most out of them, make sure you’re speaking in those terms,” Ringel said. “We can actually control the things that we say and the tone that we set when we’re gathering people.”

Leadership is a verb, she said. It’s something you do rather than a position you hold.

“Understand the agency that you have and the ability for all people to lead from wherever they are,” Ringel said. “Once you understand that it’s something that you do as opposed to a position or a place that you hold it, it really opens up a lot of pathways for people.”

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