The theme of this year’s Presidential Conference in Jerusalem was the human factor and the role of quality leadership in shaping our tomorrow. Leaders from across the globe came to speak about their visions from their hands-on experiences in diplomacy, science, economics, the arts, religion, psychology, philosophy, and more.
The message of this year’s Presidential Conference seemed to emphasize the power of vision, the foresight to grab an opportunity by its reins and change the course of history for the better. We asked: To what degree can human beings really be involved in influencing their futures? And what is the desired dynamic in relationships between individuals, groups, and leaders in the face of powerful processes of change?
The Conference has been hosted annually since 2008 by the enchanting Shimon Peres, who former U.S. President Bill Clinton referred to as a “global treasure” for his persistent role in “tikkun olam.” (Nice touch with the Hebrew vocab, Bill.) In a public letter addressing the Conference, Peres pointed out that the prophets of Jewish history have taught our people to rebel against evil and refrain from coming to terms with injustice. For the Jewish people, the essence of the human being lies in his very effort to shape the future.
To the Jewish people the prophets also bequeathed restlessness, making us nearly constantly discontented with the status quo. We possess a burning desire to break away from the familiar and the courage to create something new.
But this attitude didn’t just come out of a vacuum. There is a whole history, and an entire repertoire of cultural gifts embedded in that tumultuous history. Coincidentally, a few weeks before the Conference I borrowed a book called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. The thought-provoking book examines exceptional achievers across fields and throughout history to reveal the secret ingredients that led to the success of business moguls, scientific geniuses, sports stars, and numerous innovators upon which great legends are made of.
In the first chapter of Outliers, Gladwell asks, “What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they’re like. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top . . . I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and word hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”
In other words, the ingredients of an “outlier” are not simply a matter of personality or intelligence. There’s a whole ecosystem at work here. And if you have the vision to see the whole picture, then you can take advantage of spectacular opportunities that legends are made of.
If there was one lesson to be learned from Peres and the life stories of the other heavy hitters at the conference, it was the power of having your head in the clouds but your feet on the ground. Here are a few of the juiciest tidbits on leadership from the speakers at the Conference who truly embodied this concept:
At the end of the day, behind the monolithic forces of geopolitics, global security, and economics there is the mortal human being. With increased interdependency and the boom of modern communications, the actions of the individual have more potential for impact than ever before. Remember: it only takes a single terrorist to kill thousands and wreak havoc on the lives of thousands more. A leader must possess the modesty and the strength to recognize the contingencies that enable action against these destructive forces in the world, and the need to create cohesive partnerships for a better tomorrow.
In the central Jewish text of the Talmud we learn: “For this reason man was created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, he is guilty as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul, it is as though he had preserved a whole world.”