BLG Leadership Insights Features

Tents of Social Protest

Ever since the democratic protest movement in Iran we have been hearing about the importance of new technology as a source for grounded democracy. There is a sense that social technology has created a new popular dialogue which may, in a very fundamental way, impact the way governments make decisions, operate, and make claims to reflect the interest of their people.

Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were each dramatic examples of how a grounded movement can play a powerful and significant role that can, at least, challenge the direction of established governments. In each of these cases people wanted to be heard. They wanted their voice to matter and inevitably they wanted a sense that their leadership is delivering for them.

The events in Israel over the last two weeks, while not as dramatic as those in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, further show how a grounded social movement in this new age of social technology can challenge (or begin to challenge) the direction of government and social visions.

There’s a question as to whether the current events in Israel will amount to anything, but a dialogue which, in many ways, has been submerged for the last 25 years has now come to the surface. If this conversation continues Israel’s direction could be full of internal conflict.

For the last few weeks I’ve been walking down Roschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, a major promenade in Tel Aviv, observing the tents that have been erected in protest. These tents are occupied by young people who are protesting high housing prices–they are demanding that something be done about the inequity in real estate and rent costs. While the focus of the demonstration has been about the property prices you get the feeling as you walk among the protesters that there’s really another dialogue emerging—a dialogue about what direction the government should go. The issues of social justice, the issues of economic inequality, the issues of oligarchical control of the economy, and the issues of health reform are all being discussed.

More and more, Israel is a society in which the young and the middle class are becoming disillusioned. This spark, this sense of inequality, is starting first genuine dialogue in which social economic issues are coming to the forefront and it might lead to something…or it might lead to nothing.

Bibi Netanyahu, the micro-tactician of domestic politics, struggles with quick fixes. As all tactical leaders (as opposed to strategic leaders) he tries to put the genie back in the bottle with drama and band aides. The question now is going to be whether the genie is really out of the bottle, whether this spontaneous spark can find the leadership to move it forward. Whether this somewhat chaotic happening, which is now spreading throughout the country, can be translated into the world of institutional politics.

If it can then inevitably it will have implications for all aspects of Israeli society. It will inevitably lead to a genuine debate as to what can be accomplished in a world in which many decisions are zero-sum games.  It will lead to the first genuine social dialogue that has occurred in this society since 1976 when Menchem Begin challenged the old order. The question is: will leadership emerge from the tents on Roschild Boulevard?

BLG Leadership Insights Features

The Timing of Leadership

The more I think about leadership, the more I realize that one of the most essential elements is timing. Smart leaders, the best of leaders, have a sense of timing that is parallels an athlete or a ballerina. They have a sense of when to act and when to hold back. That, of course, is no easy trick.

The moment you lose your sense of timing your leadership is greatly handicapped, if not doomed.

Think of any hard leadership decision and your quickly realize that the essential ingredient is timing. The quality and the success of the decision is often impacted by the selection of the right moment.

A classic example is Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of emancipation. As a number of authors have pointed out Lincoln waited until the moment was just right.

The question for any leader is: When is the right moment?

It’s someplace a few steps before the tipping point. Right before the point where everyone sees the direction clearly. It’s the moment before a decision no longer has to be made and where leadership, certainly courageous leadership, is an afterthought.

As they say when the horses are out of the barn it’s too late to climb on board. All you can do is get caught up in the momentum. Leaders therefore have to have a sense of where history is moving. In that sense they must avoid the focal, group-think, short-term, instinct that often negates getting ahead of the crowd. When we talk about a failure of vision or a failure of courage, we are differentiating between those leaders who anticipate history versus those leaders who react to history.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in Tel Aviv and the other week I had an occasion to read an article by Zvi Bar’el in the Haaretz about the importance of ceasing the moment and dealing with the aging president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, in order to pursue regional peace.

The premise of the piece was that Mubarak  may soon pass on and no one really knows what direction Egypt will take from that point on. There is a tendency in the Middle East to deal mostly with the present. Certainly within the current Israeli government there is focus on the present and the short-term. But Mubarak isn’t immortal and things move on. The challenge always is: when should I act? Do you deal with the devil you know or the saint you hope will come?

I sometimes think of the Middle East in the 80s or even the 90s versus the Middle East of today. In the context of today’s radical Palestinian groups, the ones in the past look a lot more moderate. The current right of center government in Israel makes the father of right leaning Israeli nationalism, Menachem Begin, look like a left of center moderate.

Leaders in the Middle East are failing to cease the moment given the fact that things can get a lot worse rather than a lot better. The entire middle east seems to be caught in the short-term myopic mindset reminiscent of the automobile industry in the United States. Seeing what’s under their nose, being accountable to only short term interests, and failing to have the courage to look around the bend.

Point in fact: a few of them have shown a sense of historical timing.

Of course then there is Anwar El Sadat. He would have made one heck of a CEO.

Picture Credit: Amanda Woodward


A Peculiar Silence in Tel Aviv

As is often the case in July, I find myself sitting in my favorite cafe, MIA, in the Neve Tzedek in south Tel Aviv area.

It’s a neighborhood that has, in the last 15 years, evolved from forgotten little houses to resurrected restorations. With book stores, cafes, restaurants, and boutique stores. It’s where, on a Friday morning, or a Saturday afternoon, suburban couples come to, drift around, and have a cup of coffee.

Just a few years ago all conversations were about politics, peace negotiations, and the hope and lack of hope  in the Middle East. Now, even in the context of a nuclear Iran, there is a peculiar silence–a sense that people just don’t really want to talk about what’s happening around them.

It’s not necessarily an ostrich mentality nor is it necessarily a widespread indifference, but rather a type of political burnout–something that’s most apparent among the moderates.

For many years you would sit in any cafe and people would talk about the ‘mazaf,’ or the ‘situation’–a catchall word to describe the political security and social turmoil that is embedded within the country.

A number of years ago this was a focus of discussion in all homes. Today, it seems the energy has been depleted and discussions seem to wander away from anything relating to national politics.  Speak to any moderate and they’ll tell you, “I don’t listen to the news, it’s the same thing over and over again.”

Two days ago I had occasion to sit with a widow who lost her son in one of the wars and when the conversations turned to something of political substance, her response was simply, “What’s there to talk about? Nothing ever changes.”

When I spoke to a well known artists, he could talk about his art, an upcoming exhibit in Dublin, and his grandchildren in Los Angeles, but he echoed the same line when the conversation bent towards politics: “I don’t listen to the news, why bother?”

This mindset has shifted my little coffee shop from being a place on intense conversations to a place where people go after yoga lessons or a forum to discuss an upcoming trip to Bulgaria or a sailing expedition to Crete. Just about anything that allows them an escape from the ‘mazaf,’ the situation.

As moderates become more and more silent and go on more and more trips and take more and more yoga lessons the world is shifting.

Yoga classes might be increasing, but political involvement is decreasing.

Still, how different is this from any other place around the world? Have of all us moderates become exhausted?