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What Can American Business Leaders Learn from the Israelis?

June 14, 2016
A history of persecution has sown the seeds for entrepreneurial success in Israel, says this leadership expert. Here are three tenets that support Israeli businesses and would prove valuable to U.S. employers.

Jewish Americans and immigrant Jews have found remarkable success in business, sports, the arts, science and medicine, including Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page; blue jeans inventor Levi Straus; cosmetic leader Estée Lauder; filmmaker Steven Spielberg; entertainers Barbra Streisand, Benny Goodman, and Irving Berlin (who wrote “God Bless America” almost a century ago); and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

Jews are known for being studious, curious, scholarly, imaginative, hardworking and entrepreneurial; these are not stereotypes but traits embedded in Jewish life and culture—that also happen to be essential characteristics if you want to succeed in business.

During a trip to Israel this spring, I had the opportunity to converse with a number of leaders from organizations including Teva, the world’s largest generic pharmaceutical company; and from higher education and the military, including Gadi Ariav, professor of Management, Tech and Information, at Tel Aviv University’s business school. Dr. Ariav offered this thought on the origin of Israel’s success: “Two thousand years of persecution have resulted in a ‘very alert’ attitude and one which called for…great vigilance, creativity, flexibility, preparedness for imminent attacks from all quarters and more.” In other words, a history of persecution has made modern Jews even more conscious than ever about their survival to the point that failure in any venture isn’t an option.

Let’s take a closer look at three lessons Israelis offer us:

  1. Service in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) is a rite of passage and prepares young people for a productive and fulfilling future. Most Israelis from the age of 18, including women, must serve in the IDF. This service fosters personal achievement and national pride. Dr. Ariav told me the he was just twenty-something when he was in charge of the data communication function in the Logistics Command: “… at the age where American kids spend extended teen-hood in fraternities and college dorms, the same cohort in Israel ‘meets life.’” I’m not suggesting we should restore the draft but expanding opportunities for public service would help Americans build personal and job skills as well as boost both national and individual pride.
  2. Individuals, not organizations, drive success. To succeed, individuality needs to be respected, and bureaucracy limited.  Israel’s reputation as one of the most entrepreneurial countries on earth comes from its embrace of innovation, risk-taking, and love of debate. Dr. Ariav summed it up this way: “Israeli entrepreneurial attitude is pretty much etched in the cultural DNA of Israelis, with a common agreement that it reflects some very deep Jewish traditions like loath of hierarchy, learning by questions, appreciation of effort and intention over results, the belief that ‘the world can be fixed.’” In other words, it’s essential to be adaptable, inquisitive, make positive change, and hold leaders accountable.
  3. Education can never be underestimated for its value to help people succeed in life. A March 8, 2016 study by the Pew Research Center entitled “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society” found that overwhelming majorities of Jews in Israel in all demographic groups believe it’s important to give their children a good education.

While Washington remains mired in dysfunctional partisanship, the State of Israel is forging a partnership among business, military and academia to transform the Negev desert into a cyber powerhouse and one of the largest startup ecosystems in the world. The success of this project—economic growth through job creation and increased national security as a cyber capital—is a lesson in what can happen when seemingly disparate interests work together. 

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Imagine mixing Israel’s recipe for successfully balancing education, public service and entrepreneurial business success with a strong dose of the well-known American ideals of adventure, discovery, individualism and patriotism! The IDF is a major “feeder” for jobs after mandatory service has ended. Whether you loved or hated the Civilian Conservation Corps, the program enabled many out-of-work Americans to learn new skills while completing many important infrastructure projects throughout our country.

As Professor Sydney Engelberg of Hebrew University, Ono Academic College and a former IDF captain told me, “Serving in the IDF can be thought of as similar to the bar mitzvah that occurs at age 13. It is a rite of passage, where all experience the essence of Israel and their personal responsibility for Israel's future.” 

We need a similar rite of passage in the United States. By learning from the Israelis, Americans could develop a pervasive business culture where there is no “I can’t,” but only “I can and I will.”

Ritch K. Eich, Ph.D., former chief of public relations for Blue Shield of California, is the author of three leadership books and more than 100 articles. His most recent book is: Truth, Trust + Tenacity: How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Leaders. He is a Captain, U.S. Naval Reserve (ret), who has been recognized by the U.S. Senate and numerous professional organizations.

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