Douglas Bitonti Stewart shares the lessons he learned from Scott Kaufman’s decision to step down as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

Featured photo courtesy of Douglas Bitonti Stewart

By Douglas Bitonti Stewart

Leadership transitions are happening at an increasing rate throughout our region. With the sheer number of senior leaders in the for-impact sector on the verge of retiring or rewiring their careers, the longer we can hold on to vibrant, engaged, lifelong-learning, humble and optimistic executive directors the more likely we’ll be able to experience durable positive social and environmental impact.

At the same time, long-serving leaders like me often ask themselves the question of when they should leave and make room for another.  On the plus side, transitions give us a chance for new leaders to make progress and excite us by putting their lived experience and academic skills to the task.

Two leaders I know in our region have demonstrated an even better example of how leaders can both make room and stay engaged.

Scott Kaufman’s decision to step down as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit engrained in me a lesson I learned a few years back from another leader I admire: Riet Schumack.

After more than a decade of working and living in Brightmoor, having been critical in the founding of organizations like the Brightmoor Alliance and others, Riet made the decision to step aside as the executive director of the beloved organization she founded, Neighbors Building Brightmoor.

With that simple act, she taught me and the hundreds of teens and adults who know her how an unquestionably loved, effective and admired leader can step into the ranks of avid followers as opposed to stepping down or away from leadership.

To this very day you can find Riet toiling away in her farm and with her neighbors making durable, incremental, positive gains alongside other impactful leaders like Ora Williams of Grandmothers Mothering Again, Rev. Larry Simmons of the Brightmoor Alliance, along with John and Alicia George of the Motor City Blight Busters who have dedicated more than three decades to Brightmoor and Old Redford.

Scott’s announcement came as a surprise to me and, to be fully transparent, made me a bit sad. His energy and excitement for the Jewish community, how it supports and enlivens our region and city, his understanding of the historical role our Jewish neighbors have played in civil rights alongside our African American and Latinx fellow citizens, his passion for the continuing role the community has in what must be an equitable resurgence, and his sense of humor and humility made the work fun. I knew I would miss it if he stepped down.

But that’s just it, he hasn’t stepped down. Like Riet, he has moved into the ranks of what all leaders need — followers, doers, supporters, positive critics, enthusiastic skeptics and hand-raisers for the tough jobs. Scott’s plans have nothing to do with stepping down. He’s rededicating himself to his personal mission for our region, to core Jewish principles of tzedakah (justice) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) and now he can do it in the entrepreneurial spirit only he can muster.

Moving forward, I will try to follow their example, ask others to do the same, and celebrate leaders like Scott and Riet who found a way to both reenergize their passion for why they feel they were placed on this Earth — to help people and to show their love through work — and to make room for other leaders who need to stretch their changemaking legs against the tenacious challenges we face together.

Douglas Bitonti Stewart is the executive director the Max M. and Marjorie Fisher Foundation.

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