Leadership in Uncertainty



Leadership in Uncertainty


Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University


Over the past year, Americans are getting a lesson in what Israelis have been living for six decades: public life in an environment of great uncertainty. Both in economics and in politics, the U.S. has recently undergone (and continues to go through) a wild roller coaster ride with unforeseen stomach wrenching twists and turns.

           In such a period of turmoil, election campaigns tend to focus more on “personality” than on “policy” because while the latter cannot be a prescription for what to do when the unexpected occurs, the former does offer a pretty good indication of how the leader will make decisions under stress.

           In that regard, the two leading candidates to be Israel’s next prime minister could not be more different. Bibi Netanyahu is easier to parse, as he already was a prime minister and later finance minister in times of great tension and pressure. In both cases he proved to be the same individual with strikingly different outcomes. Netanyahu is a man of clear principles and overall ideology, but tends to be somewhat of a loner when making important policy decisions. Without getting into too many details, these traits were disastrous for him as prime minister but enabled him to function heroically as finance minister. Ideological consistency is fine as far as it goes but when you have to lead a motley crew of disparate parties within a coalition it turns into a recipe for paralysis or unnecessary antagonism. However, when running one’s own bailiwick (Finance Ministry), there is not that great a need for consultation – and Netanyahu’s “inflexibility” vis-à-vis other parties’ demands and warnings served the country in good stead as his budget-cutting policies enabled Israel to survive a very deep recession and go on to produce several years of excellent economic results.

           Tzippi Livni is more of a question mark, if only because she has not yet been prime minister and of the other two major ministries (defense and finance), the foreign ministry has the least “crisis management” to deal with. Yet, what we do know about her decision-making is quite the reverse of Netanyahu’s: she tends to ask for lots of advice and is a very good listener. On the other hand, the most serious criticism of her on the part of those who have seen her in action, is that she does not like to make tough decisions – precisely the opposite of Netanyahu whose self-confidence leaves no doubt (in his own eyes) as to the wisdom of whatever he decides to do.

           Livni’s approach is not surprising, given that it matches well with what the latest research has found regarding the different management styles between men and women (as a generalization, of course – for every 5 Livnis there’s one Margaret Thatcher type too). In Israel, the differences are even more pronounced, given that most prime ministers come from the Israeli Army where “gung-ho!” is the operative term.

           The parallels in the current American election campaign are striking: McCain is a Netanyahu type of leader; Obama a clone of Livni. Thus, the outcome of the American elections and Israel’s coalition formation – or Spring elections if a new Israeli government can’t be formed – will go a long way in determining what sort of relationship the two allies will have, depending on the clash or match of leadership styles in both nations.

And if you can’t wait, try this: Ha’aretz, Israel’s elite newspaper, has just introduced a “simulation game” that enables you to “play leader” in Israel based on your knowledge of the news and the political environment (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1025853.html). Do you have what it takes? We’re all asking the same question regarding McCain, Obama, Biden, Palin, Livni and Netanyahu…


Oct. 5, 2008

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.