The theme of this year’s Presidential Conference in Jerusalem was the human factor and the role of quality leadership in shaping our tomorrow. Leaders from across the globe came to speak about their visions from their hands-on experiences in diplomacy, science, economics, the arts, religion, psychology, philosophy, and more.
The message of this year’s Presidential Conference seemed to emphasize the power of vision, the foresight to grab an opportunity by its reins and change the course of history for the better. We asked: To what degree can human beings really be involved in influencing their futures? And what is the desired dynamic in relationships between individuals, groups, and leaders in the face of powerful processes of change?
The Conference has been hosted annually since 2008 by the enchanting Shimon Peres, who former U.S. President Bill Clinton referred to as a “global treasure” for his persistent role in “tikkun olam.” (Nice touch with the Hebrew vocab, Bill.) In a public letter addressing the Conference, Peres pointed out that the prophets of Jewish history have taught our people to rebel against evil and refrain from coming to terms with injustice. For the Jewish people, the essence of the human being lies in his very effort to shape the future.
To the Jewish people the prophets also bequeathed restlessness, making us nearly constantly discontented with the status quo. We possess a burning desire to break away from the familiar and the courage to create something new.
But this attitude didn’t just come out of a vacuum. There is a whole history, and an entire repertoire of cultural gifts embedded in that tumultuous history. Coincidentally, a few weeks before the Conference I borrowed a book called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. The thought-provoking book examines exceptional achievers across fields and throughout history to reveal the secret ingredients that led to the success of business moguls, scientific geniuses, sports stars, and numerous innovators upon which great legends are made of.
In the first chapter of Outliers, Gladwell asks, “What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they’re like. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top . . . I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and word hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”
In other words, the ingredients of an “outlier” are not simply a matter of personality or intelligence. There’s a whole ecosystem at work here. And if you have the vision to see the whole picture, then you can take advantage of spectacular opportunities that legends are made of.
If there was one lesson to be learned from Peres and the life stories of the other heavy hitters at the conference, it was the power of having your head in the clouds but your feet on the ground. Here are a few of the juiciest tidbits on leadership from the speakers at the Conference who truly embodied this concept:
- Bill Clinton – In this world of increasing interdependence, fixing one’s own community is not enough. We must expand the definition of “community,” “self,” and “us,” to include the complex links and influences we have on other groups and individuals. We cannot necessarily escape the consequences of what others do, but we can try to redefine our responsibility of how our actions affect others. There are no final victories, no flawless leaders. If you survive a great challenge, then you survived it for a reason and you should find something worthwhile to do with your life by giving back to the world. Face the past, then let it go and live in the future. There is no perfect answer – just a perfect obligation.
- Rahm Emanuel – A good leader learns from his failures and uses them to figure out the correct ideal to pursue. Never allow a crisis to go to waste. To appreciate the peaks, you have to raise yourself up from the valleys. Change is the only constant you will have to face as a leader. Tossing in a baseball analogy for good measure, the leader must be the “pitcher” – never the “catcher” – to throw the ball at the right angle he needs to get his policies accomplished in the right context. Do not forget where you come from and who you serve – the people. When a leader distances himself from the best interest of the public, he will confuse the sometimes brutal means he must take with the purity of the goal he must achieve.
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Forcefully quelling a revolt does not bring about a resolution to a conflict; it only leaves the people to simmer until there is another explosion of disastrous implications for an entire region, such as the current civil war taking placing in Syria and Al Qaeda’s preying on unemployed young men to join the jihadist cause. (Not that war is funny in any way, but I did like her humorous touch when she referred to the Middle East as a “tornado of testosterone.”) When American leaders talk about potentially getting involved in a conflict, they often prefer to get rid of the “bad guy” and then get the hell out of there. The problem with this policy is that when you leave a major power vacuum, you are only providing an opportunity for another major evil power to step in.
- Tony Blair – The skills that propel you to reach the position of leadership are not necessarily the skills needed to be a good leader. In today’s increasingly interdependent world, there is a high level of unpredictability and instability, as well as the potential for a single individual to have greater impact. With that in mind, the real character of power in an increasingly interdependent world is how you create cooperation and partnership. Do not depend on the leadership lessons of the past, but recognize that our specific generation requires a new open-minded type of leadership that is eager to humbly learn from others and see within those myriad viewpoints the potential for new courses in history.
At the end of the day, behind the monolithic forces of geopolitics, global security, and economics there is the mortal human being. With increased interdependency and the boom of modern communications, the actions of the individual have more potential for impact than ever before. Remember: it only takes a single terrorist to kill thousands and wreak havoc on the lives of thousands more. A leader must possess the modesty and the strength to recognize the contingencies that enable action against these destructive forces in the world, and the need to create cohesive partnerships for a better tomorrow.
In the central Jewish text of the Talmud we learn: “For this reason man was created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, he is guilty as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul, it is as though he had preserved a whole world.”