Three Blind Leaders

Leadership is about the moving of agendas–but sometimes micro agendas get in the way of macro visions and, dare I say, real accomplishments. Sometimes leaders get so obsessed with the incremental, the immediate, the necessity of the moment, that they simply blow off the big issues.

Sure, leadership is about keeping people on your side, but this over obsession of trying to sustain a coalition, this over management of making sure your people are with you, can really take you from the position of leadership to a position of tactical compliance, or even worse, passive acquiescence.

So let’s think for a moment about Barack Obama, Bebe Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas and the speeches they gave at the United Nations last week.

What do they all have in common?  Simple. All were obsessed with their internal coalition, their micro-political agenda, and not with truly visionary movement.

Let’s start with President Obama.

His recent General Assembly speech was a long way from his 2009 Cairo Speech. President Obama no longer challenged Netanyahu, but he reinforced him. As a good friend of mine recently said, “Obama became more Netanyahu than Netanyahu!”

What was the point of the speech?

Well the point was the 9th congressional district in Queens where Republican Congressman Bob Turner recently beat his Democratic opponent David Weprin in a largely Jewish district.

President Obama, having slipped in the polls and needing all the support he can get on his jobs agenda, crafted his speech in order to keep “the Jewish democrats” in his corner.

Now, let’s look at Netanyahu’s speech

Netanyahu speech appropriately states the classical Jewish Zionist vision–and dismisses the issues of the settlements.  He presents the purity of his vision and brings up the classical arguments and says that the Palestinians keep missing opportunities.

Netanyahu, however, was well aware of the context. He knew that Israel’s left leaning labor party was becoming more and more invigorated and that he had to speak to his base.

Now, let’s finally analyze Abbas’ speech.

Abbas’ speech addressed the 1948 Al-Nakba, but it ignored the principal of a Jewish homeland, the Jewish tragedy, and the Jewish state, and essentially gives a micro list of his perceptions of injustice. He gave very little and implied a live-and-let-live mentality.

However, Abbas speech couldn’t ignore reality. Hamas still maintains strength in Gaza and indeed many of his critics would feel that any recognition of Israel would be inappropriate.

Here’s what we have. Three leaders who are concerned with maintaining their coalitions. Three leaders, who are avoiding an opportunity to leap forward because they are fundamentally concerned about the degree of their political survival.

Obama could have simply said that we wanted to be the neutral broker and, using the ‘getting-to-yes’ mindset, he could have declared in some dramatic way: “this is an opportunity to bring all parties together.” But, he failed to do that.

Bebe Netanyahu had the opportunity to recognize Palestinian grievances and a bit of the Palestinian narrative. He could have used the opportunity to legitimize some of the Palestinian pain by simply saying, “I recognize that the Palestine’s have their grievances.” If he had done so, he would have shifted the dialogue.

And Abbas failed just as dramatically. Rather than recognizing Jewish historical claims, Jewish contemporary fears and anxiety, he chose to speak only to his own narrative.

We can learn a few leadership lessons from these UN speeches.

1. Focusing on your short term collation is political survival, not leadership

2. The key to creating change in a conflict situation is to at least recognize the narrative of the other.

3. Don’t always lead by talking about what has been talked about. Talk about what could be.

4. The high ground never hurts.

Maybe these three speeches at the UN were effective. Maybe I missed the point. Maybe by giving these speeches these leaders gained enough legitimacy with their base so they’ll have time to participate in the talks suggested by the Quartet. Maybe they’ll really want to push towards a visionary peace.

I’m not sure. But all I heard were three micro-politicians with little vision. I saw three blind mice. See how they run, see how they run for office.

 

Samuel B. Bacharach

I'm a professor at Cornell University's Institute for Workplace Studies in NYC. I write about the importance of proactive leadership in the office..(read more)

 

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