Friday, August 01, 2008

On Leadership: Bartlet, Obama & Olmert

During an emotional speech last Wednesday, Israel’s Prime Minister announced his intention not to run in the party primary scheduled for September.

Despite a strong economy, low unemployment and improved personal security, Olmert remained largely unpopular, tainted by images of corruption and the mishandling of the Lebanon War.

2 weeks ago, Israel hosted another leader, who by January 2008 may well be the most powerful person in the world (not Gordon Brown). Obama is attractive because he offers something new and refreshing, a vision to inspire a mostly ambivalent electorate…a feeling that there is more to politics than soundbites, that individuals can make a difference.

The evening after Obama left was spent in one of the best ways possible – watching old episodes of the West Wing with friends. Out of all my favorite series’ - Heroes, 24, Spooks, Lost - only Sorkin’s West Wing is good enough to watch over and over.

One episode describes how the team forms around Josiah (Jed) Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. Josh advises a leading democrat, but is frustrated by his lack of courage on policy. Sam slogs away at a law firm organizing insurance for oil tankers.

Both are looking for the 'real deal,' a candidate who stands for something more than just winning.

The die is cast when Bartlet tells a dairy farmer why he voted for a bill increasing the price of milk (check out the
clip – its awesome).

'Today, for the first time in history, the largest group of Americans living in poverty are children...1 in 5 and they’re children.. I voted against the bill because I didn’t want to make it harder for people to buy milk.

I stopped some money flowing into your pocket, if that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that. But if expect anything different from the President of the United States you should vote for someone else.'

At work, I’m part of a team dealing with Reut’s Strategic ‘Impact,’ based on a book by Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz called Leadership without Easy Answers.
Heifetz distinguishes between two concepts people often see as synonymous - Leadership and Authority. While Authority denotes those elected to positions of power, Leadership is something else.

It’s not about making people feel safe and secure, resolving conflict or being popular; that’s the responsibility of Authority figures.

Leadership, according to Heifetz, is often about causing discomfort, orchestrating conflict. It’s about the very difficult process of facilitating a change in the values, priorities and behavior of a society to be able to deal with new challenges...

All of which is a far cry from what David Grossman describes as our own “terrified, suspicious, sweaty, legalistic, deceptive” leadership.

So as Israel looks to appoint a new leader, is it too much to hope for someone able to cogently articulate a vision about what we stand for, about the future, about why the smart, educated people should stay rather than earn big bucks abroad?

In a country born from ideas and vision as well as blood and tears, do we not deserve leaders prepared to act in the greater good a la Bartlet, or explain the tough choices ahead a la Heifetz?

Is it too much to expect inspiration from the leader of a people whose entire history inspires?

So as discussions over who should replace our current authority figure start afresh, and the media and candidates resume their superficial spin and soundbites, the real question is whether we’ll find someone who believes in more than just winning…and whether the ‘real deal’ is to be found anywhere other than on TV…