Lessons in Leadership from Benjamin Netanyahu

I have been privileged to be in the same room with strong leaders before – but I can now say I have sat in the same room with one of the truly great world leaders of our day.

This week started by checking a significant item off the bucket list of things I really want to do while living in DC. Since moving to the Nation’s capital, I’ve really wanted to experience taking my beautiful wife to a black tie gala in true DC fashion; fancy attire, beautiful ballrooms, delicious food, dancing, and stimulating conversation.12193592_10102390486238303_2943669386508935262_n

The opportunity came and it is – as the best things in my life always are – completely because of my incredible wife. Our names were included on the same invitation that included national journalists, member of congress, world-class scholars, Supreme Court justices, and a head of state. On Monday evening, we found ourselves dressed – Donelle exquisitely so – and at the National Building Museum to see the Prime Minister of Israel receive the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), all the while trusting the Secret Service would in fact let us leave this closed event in the middle of dinner should Donelle go into labor. Given that possibility we skipped the dancing.

I’ve heard Netanyahu speak on a number of occasions and his most recent address to a joint session of the United States Congress was particularly resonating in my mind as we made our way through the general reception and to our table. This night was going to be a particular treat. Rather than prepared remarks, the prime minister was invited to sit across from Danielle Pletka, the Senior VP for Foreign Affairs at AEI, and engage in a dialogue on a range of issues. In this forum, the pretense is gone and you got the sense you were invited behind the scenes into how he truly thinks, processes national and international dilemmas, interacts with dictators as well as global powers, and leads his nation through it all.

I’ll begin by stating that I’m a bit biased. That bias is toward leadership itself, because leadership matters! There is always a dynamic of leadership in any situation. There can be good leadership, poor leadership, weak or strong, or even a void of leadership that leaves a devastating vacuum, but there is always a leadership dynamic.

There are also many types of leaders. Benjamin Netanyahu is in my estimation a shining example of transformational leadership. Spending just 40 minutes hearing how he really thinks and believes left an indelible sense that a preferable future exists. It is a future that I want to experience and one that he knows we can achieve together. I’ll caveat and say that I do not agree with everything he stands for or believes – but being in his presence left me inspired and desiring to do greater things, and lead a greater life. The last fifteen years of his leadership in Israel have led to an economic revolution and a stronger nation that the people overwhelmingly affirm is due to his vision (he was just elected to a third term, after all). Whether I agree with everything he believes or not, it was clear that I was in the room with a great leader!

Five reflections in leadership from my observation of Benjamin Netanyahu:

Make bad choices. I’ve heard it said before, but Netanyahu stated it succinctly – Good leadership, unfortunately, comes down to making choices between bad and worse. Seldom are we offered a good choice. This is probably the result of a fallen world. People are broken and leading broken people ultimately creates hardship or hurt for someone, somewhere.

The Christian responds to this brokenness with an ethic that prefers others at all times. It is not easy, and especially difficult when you sincerely believe that you are right and your brother is wrong, but the Bible commends us to make less of ourselves, prefer each other by thinking of others as better than ourselves, and to make much of Jesus all along the way.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

Honesty needs no apology. When reflecting on the person for whom the award he was receiving was named, Netanyahu commented that Irving Kristol was a fiercely honest man who told things like they were, and political correctness had no place in civil and serious dialogue. Even though he was commenting about someone else, as I watched and listened to Netanyahu discuss other world leaders he deals with – from Obama to Putin, from Hezbollah to ISIS – I realized that he, too, fit this description.

He spoke sternly, but sincerely and respectfully of those with whom he disagrees. Where do we EVER see this in our society today? Further, how can we expect to work through disagreements if we never speak plainly and constructively with those of different points of view?

So long as one values the inherent dignity of every human being there is no reason to fear the bully tactics of the obscenely malicious guised as political correctness in civil discourse. If every person has worth, value, and dignity, then speak plainly and work toward consensus, compromise, and a culture of kindness and respect.

For the Christian this should come naturally since we do value the inherent worth of every person because they are created in the image of God. The Imago Dei is imprinted within every human being and that – if nothing else – demands our respect.

Deal with Reality. As already mentioned, Netanyahu clearly disagrees with decisions that other world leaders have made and are making. Rather than dwelling on a decision, or incessantly criticizing it – both actions are at worst dangerously divisive, or at best utterly futile activities – he accepts the decisions that are made and operates in the present, dealing with real conditions and actual consequences of those decisions. It is far easier to bicker and bemoan decisions you dislike, and that can even garner you attention and even support, but it is built upon a hate for the past. Transformational leadership is about giving hope for tomorrow.

Honesty needs no apology, but it probably begins with one. Since the garden, human beings have demonstrated a pernicious proclivity to mishandle the truth. It is debilitating and exhausting; yet people will expend enormous amounts of time and energy to cover up their own dishonesty – or somehow force it to become the truth rather than simply acknowledge their fault. The beauty of the gospel is that our freedom is found in forgiveness.

Innovate, do it now and as fast as you can. Netanyahu commented that we are living in the century of conceptual economies and those who will survive are the ones that innovate the fastest.

Here is the entire dialogue: