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Decision making – a glimpse from history

David Ben-Gurion on the cover, TIME Magazine 1948 by Boris Artzy basheff
David Ben-Gurion on the cover, TIME Magazine 1948 by Boris Artzy basheff

by Sharon Har Zahav

No longer “alone in front of the mirror,” – what can senior managers learn about making decisions from great leaders in the history of the Jewish people?

How far from reality is the famous saying “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”?

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Anyone with common sense understands that people want to be a part of success but are not eager to associate themselves with failure.

It is customary to say that senior managers in the economy are “alone in front of the mirror.” It means that after a structured decision-making process, they make the decision alone and are the ones who, for better or worse, have to stand behind it, which is even more complicated if the decision is difficult, such as downsizing, streamlining, and mass layoffs.

Sometimes a senior manager makes an unpopular decision that in the future will be justified.

The manager must bravely stand by his decision. If the decision was made professionally and correctly and considered all the parameters, he could more easily stand behind it.

What can great leaders in history teach us about decision-making?

On May 12, 1948, David Ben-Gurion made the most crucial decision of his life: he convened the People’s Administration (= the government) so that it would approve his decision to declare the establishment, two days later, of the State of Israel.

A majority of 6 to 4 approved his proposal.

Earlier, one of the senior ministers, Moshe Sharet, objected. Had he voted against it, there would have been a tie, and the decision would not have been approved. In a decisive personal conversation, Ben-Gurion convinced his colleague Sharett to vote in favor. This is how the state was established.

Why had he made this decision? On the one hand, the military situation was difficult; settlements fell into the hands of the Arabs, and the army quickly being established was small in quantity and quality of its weapons compared to the Arab armies. The American Secretary of State, former Chief of Staff of the US Army, warned the Israelis not to declare the establishment of the state because they would be annihilated.

But, on the other hand, what was decisive for Ben-Gurion was the understanding that many weapons were on the way, that it was easier to defend than to attack, and above all – that there was no choice.

Any delay would lead to an international trust regime being put in place for the country. Ben-Gurion, who knew how to decide without delay, considered everything, pitted these against others – and decided immediately. History proves that he was right.

A year and a half later, Ben-Gurion, quickly as usual, made another decisive decision. The United Nations Assembly decided, in November 1949, to change Jerusalem’s status from being Israel’s capital into a city under international rule.

Ben-Gurion’s response: He ordered that the Knesset and government offices be moved immediately to Jerusalem, and that’s what happened. Within days, the temporary offices were in Jerusalem, and one of them was an old house in Jerusalem (Beit Fromin) that later became the Knesset residence.

Why was that decision made?

Behind his decision was his belief that “it is not important what the ‘Goim’ will say, but what they will do and that the Jews do”. The Prime Minister studied the legal and practical situation and found that the resolutions of the UN Assembly (unlike those of the Security Council) are only recommendations and not decisions to be implemented.

He discovered that the great powers do not bring the Security Council a proposal for action against Israel if it continues to see Jerusalem as its capital. That is why he decided to take action immediately before anyone in Israel regretted it. Foreign Minister Moshe Sharet opposed the transfer of the government and the Knesset to Jerusalem. He resigned in a secret letter that was not published.

Ben-Gurion convinced him – as before the establishment of the state – to withdraw.

The Prime Minister ordered the immediate transfer of the Knesset and the government to Jerusalem. Officials searched rapidly for offices. The Knesset moved within days from Tel Aviv to the old “Beit Fromin,” and the offices moved to temporary locations. Only the Ministry of Defense remains in Tel Aviv, which is beyond the range of the Jordanian artillery.

Ben-Gurion was right: the countries that voted in favor of the internationalization of Jerusalem were deterred by Israel’s swift and aggressive response and did almost nothing.”

In June 1967, Israel was threatened by the danger of an Egyptian attack. Egypt removed the UN force that separated it from Israel, Egyptian divisions moved towards the border, and the Egyptian army was transitioning to an immediate attack. Israel’s main concern was that hundreds of Egyptian planes would bomb Tel Aviv and other cities. The country mobilized reserves, the economic activity was almost silent, and the public was terrified.

Three people made a decisive decision: Prime Minister Levi Eshkol agreed to appoint Dayan as Minister of Defense, and Dayan ordered a counterattack. Air Force Commander Mordechai ordered – and the Air Force dispatched and destroyed the Egyptian Air Force within three hours.

The country escaped the danger of the bombing.

The basics of success: quick and sharp decisions, secrecy, and quick execution after thorough preparations.

In 1977 there was a revolution, and the Likud party came to power. One day, the new Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, heard that the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was saying, in a speech that he was ready to come “all the way to Jerusalem” to convince the Jews of the rightness of his way. Begin grabbed the bull by the horns, immediately decided to take action, and publicly invited Sadat to Israel. Sadat, who was forced to stand by his advice, arrived in Israel in an incredible dramatic event, and thus the historic peace agreement between Israel and the Egyptians was born.

After several years passed, an economic danger hovered over the country, no less severe than a military one: inflation ran rampant, and prices jumped by 400% within a year. Money lost its value, it was impossible to make deals, and there needed to be more training in the economy and the system that ran the country.

The prime minister was Shimon Peres, not an economist but a wise person who understood the danger. Peres secretly appointed a team of economists to prepare a plan to save the economy and eradicate inflation.

On June 30, he called the government to a meeting to discuss the plan. The sit-in lasted 25 consecutive hours – the longest in the country’s history. Ministers fell asleep on the throne, but Peres remained awake and fresh. The plan was approved unanimously, inflation was curbed, and it saved the economy.

Why did he decide this: Peres understood the danger to the economy. He learned from his teacher, Ben-Gurion, that he must make a decision immediately and without procrastination. Another lesson he learned is that a plan is prepared secretly, without communication and publication.

Two prime ministers made crucial secret decisions: in 1981, Begin sent the Air Force to bomb the main atomic reactor, and Ehud Olmert, many years later, bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor. Both of them saved the State of Israel from great dangers. Here, too, the emphasis was on secret and quick action.

In 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat signed the “Oslo Agreement” for a temporary conflict settlement.

The agreement itself failed. He is brought here because of a minor incident: Rabin, Arafat, and the US president signed the agreement. Arafat extended his hand to Rabin. The latter, who until then was unwilling to see Arafat or talk to him, hesitated for a second. What to do?! After a few seconds, he decided – and shook the hand of the PLO leader. The film shows how Rabin decided in half a minute.

 Finally, an event from these days: Benjamin Netanyahu forms a new government, and his ultra-Orthodox partners attack the LGBT community and announce measures against it. Many in public are outraged. What do we do? Netanyahu appointed a well-known LGBT figure, Amir Ohana, to the prestigious position of Speaker of the Knesset. Now the ultra-Orthodox are furious. Is the decision correct? Time will tell.

Not only do senior managers make decisions, but there are also many other positions with responsibilities, such as doctors, pilots, teachers, managers in the private sector, and managers in the public sector. At one point or another, they all have to make decisions, from the macro level significant decisions to the micro level smaller ones.

And what is the solution?

An orderly and careful study of the decision-making process is required, from its beginning to its end, and this method is spread over several structured stages. The general public doesn’t always understand right away why a decision was made, so the decision itself must also be explained correctly. The more the decision is based on professional foundations, the easier it will be to stand behind it and communicate it.

What do we learn from this series of decisions?

For the decision to be successful, it must have the following qualities:

A thorough study of the subject;

Secret preparations without publication and communication;

Taking advantage of a political opportunity;

Quick or immediate action is preferred over speaking.

All the materials published in this article are part of a digital learning platform in the field of employment and business for learning from senior officials in the Israeli economy. Among other things, we teach an orderly method for making decisions in a way that will teach us to make smart decisions on time and not at a later time when we already have our backs on the wall. This method is easy to use and works well for management in situations with a lot of uncertainty.

The author, Attorney Sharon Har Zahav, developer of a digital learning platform in employment and business for learning practice, management, initiative, and skills in the work market, delivered by senior managers in the Israeli economy.

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