A Leader – Not a Populist

September 15, 2019 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

During this steamy, depressing political summer, Ayman Odeh’s leadership is a breath of fresh air, a call to many Israeli citizens – Arabs and Jews alike – to join the change for the good of the State of Israel and the region

The Labor Party’s 2009 electoral campaign presented charismatic and articulate Ehud Barak under the slogan, “Not a Bro – A leader.”  It didn’t bring him victory – and for sure, after his failure in the elections, Barak’s crawl into the coalition with Netanyahu was the very opposite of leadership.

What is Leadership?

Any one of us can identify a “leader”, but we find it hard to explain why.  This may be because there is still no accepted paradigm that would enable us to build a training program for leaders, even though the concept is ubiquitous.  Countless advisors, coaches, workshops and training programs are running to fill this vacuum, in an attempt to transform simple metal into gold.

In his 2012 book, Fact and Fantasy About Leadership, Michah Popper argues that it is impossible to define the characteristics of a leader, and thus the effort to “manufacture” leaders is a fantasy.  Popper suggests that we change our perspective and look at the psychology of the followers (2012):  “Are the characteristics of our attraction to leaders universal or dependent upon context and culture?  How are certain myths about leaders created?”

If we define a leader as the person chosen by his tribe of voters to lead a change in the current situation, then the level of voters’ loyalty to his positions should define the quality of his leadership.  Popper’s perspective creates new possibilities to define the quantitative measures of leadership and to build effective training accordingly.

Leaders Crowned by their Voters

Benny Gantz (Netanyahu rival) has yet to prove himself as a political leader.  Moshe Dayan might have said about him, “He is a good guy, in the negative sense of the word…” Inarticulate, lacking charisma or effective strategy, Gantz led to an unprecedented achievement in the elections to the 20th Knesset and gained some 30% of the vote, thus creating a camp that was equal in size to the “Only Bibi” camp that voted for Netanyahu.  Will Benny Gantz articulate an inspiring vision that isn’t merely a mantra of “Anyone but Bibi?” If not, Netanyahu will leave the Israeli political stage only a little before leader-for-a-moment Gantz sputters out.

If we define a leader as someone whom people choose to follow, then trust is the basis for any leadership. John Maynard Keynes contended that, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”  According to this perspective, great leaders appear at a crucial moment in order to provide their followers with a reason and the security to escape their old ideas in order to bring a future vision to fruition.

A call to the voting public to come together for a common purpose, such as Obama’s, “Yes, we can!” or, in contrast, Trump’s, “Let’s make America great again!” cannot explain why these politicians were elected. In their book, Leadership on the Line  (2002), Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy argue that trustworthy leadership should be evaluated according to the level of risk that the leader takes upon himself in his commitment to his goal.  There are many examples of this, including Martin Luther-King and Yitzhak Rabin.  Thomas Kuhn (The structure of Scientific Revolutions) also points to the heavy price that ground-breaking paradigms revolutionaries, such as Galileo Galilee, paid for going against the tide of science.

According to Popper, Kuhn, and Heifetz, only people who recognize the importance of a narrative that inspires identification and hope are worthy of being called leaders. Instead of designing this vision according to a current trend, they are willing to hold on to that vision even if it initially generates support only from a minority, along with general opposition. It is not surprising that many leaders come before their time, and sometimes do not even have the opportunity to see the fulfillment of their vision, yet, at some point in time – they were the future.

For example, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have burst onto the field as leaders with the potential to change the Democratic party in the United States and the liberal camp throughout the world.  They offer an inspiring narrative that deals with change in the socio-economic paradigm.  A change in the political rules of the game and the American economy would not only provide a social safety net for all citizens, it would lead to a change in the power relationships between huge companies and the upper one-thousandth percentile and workers and consumers.  Their strength will signal a change in US policy with regard to the greatest challenge facing our generation: putting a stop to global warming, globalization, and a reconfiguring of the relationship between humans and their environment.

Ayman Odeh shows leadership

There were many who ignored the declaration by Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an Arab (Palestinian) citizen of Israel, regarding his willingness to be a partner in a center-left coalition in order to advance the integration of Arab Israelis into state institutions.  At this time, it would appear that the personal risk he has taken is greater than the chance that he will lead a civil movement to fulfill his vision.

But Ayman Odeh suddenly burst onto the scene as a leader with a ground-breaking narrative who is inviting many to join him on a journey towards a better future.  His call has created a buzz, and his opponents on the right, and even in some parts of the Zionist left, have according him, in the words of Heifetz and Linksy, the criteria of a leader and have increased my appreciation of him.

True, at this time, only a tiny tribe of supporters has adopted Odeh’s narrative.  For me, he provides a spot of light in a dark time, an inspiring vision of equal civic lives, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Odeh has provided his tribe of voters (referencing Popper) with an anchor to hold on to in the present, and a clear goal for the future.  His declaration attests to his willingness for battle, with the potential to change the paradigm (according to Kuhn), and willingness to take personal, social and political risks (following Heifetz).

During this steamy, depressing political summer, Ayman Odeh’s leadership is a breath of fresh air, a call to many Israeli citizens – Arabs (Muslims, Christians) and Jews alike – to join the change for the good of the State of Israel and the region.

 Boaz Tamir, ILE.

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