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Barbara Balser Insights on Leadership From a Woman Who Knows

In November 2003, Barbara Balser of Atlanta became the first female chair of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in its 90-year history. This mother of six is also CEO and co-chair of Balser Companies, a nationally known think tank that designs executive benefits programs for corporations such as UPS and Home Depot. A JWI Life Member and a founding member of The Committee of 200, an organization for women business leaders, Balser at age 28 was elected president of her B'nai B'rith Women (BBW) chapter in Atlanta in the late 1960s. She credits her involvement in that organization, JWI's precursor, with helping her to build leadership skills. As an ADL leader, Balser has traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East and has met with world leaders from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Great Britain and Israel. In April, she was in Berlin for the Conference on Anti-Semitism sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Q: What issues weighed most on your mind when you attended the conference in Berlin?
A: Of enormous concern to meand also to the ADLis the ongoing demonization of Israel in the [European] press, which ultimately has to have anti-Semitic repercussions. From our perspective, it is of little import whether one supports the Sharon government or not. This isn't about Ariel Sharon or any one individual. Israel is a democracy surrounded by countries that do not have the same level of freedom, democracy and open press. For Israel to be held to a standard that is so different from what is applied to its neighbors is mind-boggling to me and of major concern to us. We feel we really must reach out to opinion makers, the media and government leaders in Europe, where the demonization of Israel occurs daily in the press. Our goal is to do all we can to monitor and understand the kinds of incidents that are happening.

Q: How does it feel to be the first woman to chair the ADL?
A: It's an opportunity to open a door and do something I know I can do because of the person I am, and not because of my gender. When women are able to achieve and accomplish where only men have achieved and accomplished in the past, I think we provide a very important role model, an inspiration for other women to say, "If she did it, I can do it."

Q: Have you experienced the "stained-glass ceiling" that keeps Jewish women from rising to the top?
A: I've heard of it, and I think I was part of a study done a few years ago about the lack of Jewish women at the top of major Jewish organizations. I don't believe, at least in my ADL experience, that a group of men at the highest level of the organization made a conscious decision that women would not be promoted within the organization.

I don't think that, traditionally, men have been as concerned as women about their responsibilities to their mate and children in regard to being gone from home [which being a leader requires]. Now, I think, there is more of an equilibrium, with more women having serious careers and pursuing their own personal goals. Women are out there more and are willing to pay the dues that come with leadership: a lot of travel, time away from home and the office, and money-in terms of both making a significant gift to the organization and covering one's expenses.

In my own case, there was a time when I really and truly could not travel and be on the national scene. My husband and I have six children. We've been married 26 years. The eldest was 15 when we got married. The children had a tremendous number of activities, and we were also building our business at the same time. One year they were in five different schools, which meant five PTAs and five parent nights. The boys were in four different AZA chapters. We lived with an appointment calendar. We would take our briefcases to the gym and sit there from one to five as each team did its practices. We felt it was important to be there.

Q. What qualities do you value in a leader?
A: In no particular order: Be a straight shooter so people know that you can be trusted. Be willing to do the jobs that aren't the most popular. Be willing to give a leadership gift in time and in moneyyou have to make your own commitment before you can ask others to make theirs. Be a good and sincere communicator. Have good people skills because a warm smile, a friendly handshake, a pat on the back and a hello go a long way, particularly if one has been anointed as one of the leaders. Respect people and include them in the process, and ask them for their input and feedback. Be available to the people you are trying to lead. Most of us aren't born with these skill sets. We learn them. They are part of what helps you progress down the road to become the kind of person that you want to be.

Q: What influences most shaped who you are today?
A: One was that I came from a family that truly believed in community service. I was terribly proud of my familyparticularly my mother, Vivian Bernstein, who was beautiful, charming, poised and everything I ever wanted to me. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. My mother founded the women's division of the Richmond Jewish Federation and founded the first B'nai B'rith Women [BBW] group in Richmond. So when I came to Atlanta, the first organization I joined was BBW.

I grew up in this wonderful atmosphere. I never knew that you had a choice about becoming involved. To me it's an obligation to support the institutions in your community. I just don't think that these are things that people who can afford it have a right to say no to.

I was a fairly typical Jewish upper-middle-class young woman with the advantage of a good education, and had three kids, was active in the Jewish community and essentially had a normal life. Then I was divorced, which shattered me and left me almost penniless. But, fortunately, I was able to turn that around and build a much more rewarding life. I am blessed that, even though it was a struggle, I had my children when hard times came. My guiding thought, particularly because their father was totally absent, was that I really wanted to be someone they could be proud of and look up to. It was important for me to be a role model for them. So I guess my parents and my children have been my inspiration.