On COVID-19, True Leadership Is the Ability to Listen
Sitting outside in the square-shaped courtyard, we awaited his arrival. The patio was enclosed on three sides, and only a twisting, lurching angle would allow for a glimpse of the skies above. This patio was his refuge, his sanctuary. The only place he could see the sun and the stars.
The crisp air, the freshly cut grass, and the sounds of life on the other side of the high walls allowed him to feel free, even for few minutes. Feet up, cigar in his mouth, and TV blaring in the background, it was here that he held his most intimate meetings, and in some cases the most fateful ones. Time with him on the patio was time in the Holy of Holies, a place that only his most inner circles penetrated.
His tardiness was the norm, but that night we anxiously paced as hundreds, possibly thousands, awaited our arrival. Election day was closing in, and the residents of the south were a key constituency in our re-election campaign. As he exited through the screen door from his office, the look on his face made it clear, he was not happy.
I quickly asked what the problem was, to which I was met with a cold stare. “You know these events are useless.” A smile snuck across my face, as we had gone through this debate an endless number of times. “You know I don’t agree, and we have 500 people waiting for us, so we need to leave.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly started walking for the door, but not before getting in the last word “why speak to 500 people when we can be speaking to a million?”
This is the question Netanyahu and his staff had been wrestling with for decades. Mass media appearances or in-person, press the flesh events?
Having spent much of his childhood in the United States, Netanyahu witnessed the rise of President John F. Kennedy and the television revolution in politics. The transformation to TV saw physical appearance become a significant consideration for the first time (the longest-serving US President, Franklin Roosevelt, was wheelchair-bound). More importantly, the TV era allowed candidates to look straight at the camera and speak to thousands of households simultaneously, while giving each the feeling that they were being spoken to directly.
Television, followed decades later by the Internet and social media, changed the way politicians and their constituents interact, but not necessarily for the good. The capacity to communicate with millions at once is of great value, but an issue of even greater value was lost — the ability to listen.
Political listening today is limited to polling results. Want to know how people feel about a policy or a topic? Order a survey. Today’s leaders, for the most part, initiate, respond, deliberate, and decide based on numbers and not people.
Case in point is the Israeli government’s handling of the current second wave of COVID-19. There is not a country in the world that has figured out this wretched pandemic and there are no magic solutions, yet much of the Israeli public feel frustration and anger with our elected officials. This lack of satisfaction stems not from the pandemic’s challenges, but rather from the government’s perceived disconnect. A feeling of unity and togetherness during the first wave allowed for our leadership to implement restrictions and limitations, while the public received this with understanding. As that wave subsided and the economic hardships endured, a sense of detachment prevailed. The government was busy with internal squabbles and petty politics instead of listening to the needs and challenges we are all facing. With the onset of a second and more vicious wave, these feelings have been amplified. The one political figure who has gotten it right, Naftali Bennett, has seen his support skyrocket as a result. Leadership is not just about decision-making. Leadership is sharing in the concerns, fears, and difficulties of those you represent.
A few weeks ago, I heard a class given by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks where he questioned why Moses was chosen to lead the Jews out of Egypt. Of all the possible leaders, why would God have chosen a man with a serious speech impediment — an obstacle that would normally prevent someone from ascending to leadership, and most definitely would prevent a Moses in our television and social media era. Rabbi Sacks answered simply that God chose Moses not for his gift of gab, but rather for his proclivity to listen. Moses heard the cries of his brothers and sisters.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American poet, wrote that “Speech is power.” The ability of our leaders to convey a message in a clear and calming fashion is a valuable asset and is critical in managing this pandemic. Yet communication, like leadership, should not be one-dimensional. Speech is power, but true leadership is the ability to listen as well.
Ari Harow is an international political and business consultant, and former chief of staff to the Prime Minister of Israel.
A version of this article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.