Supreme Command: Ben-Gurion & Common Sense

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David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel, ’48-’54

By Kevin Black

Our age of specialization has in some respects overshadowed the value of the generalist. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering the sophisticated,  technological age we live in. For instance, to be a “business strategist” today requires a qualifier, signifying an expertise in a particular field, such as marketing, sales, or IT. What about the general business strategist? Isn’t this the professional who integrates all of the input of the experts? And by what technical right can this person legitimately tell an expert what to do or what not to do? David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, who is the fourth statesmen presented in Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesman, and Leadership in Wartime, provides an interesting and helpful perspective.

Despite being a professional politician, Eliot A. Cohen described Ben-Gurion as first and foremost an intellectual. He was widely read (his library contained over 12,000 volumes in science, philosophy, history, and literature) and spoke eight languages.  Ben-Gurion would personally oversee Israel’s rise to a nation state. How did he manage the various state mechanisms, with its experts in economics, military matters, domestic and foreign policies? His answer might seem surprising to the modern business leader, brought up in out in our age of experts:

In military matters, as in all other matters of substance, experts knowledgeable in technique don’t decide, even though their advice and guidance is vital; rather, an open mind and a common sense are essential. And these qualities are possessed – to a greater or lesser degree – by any normal man.

Ben-Gurion spoke these words in 1948 from the speech named, “From the Haganah in the Underground to a Regular Army.” He realized the technical expertise is a really a means to an ends. The man with common sense, i.e. who can ask the simple questions and appreciate simple answers, is the one who can see the future and understand its requirements for success.

Don’t be turned off by this example, business leaders!  Ben-Gurion is obviously an anomaly.  Nonetheless, his lessons of leadership are universal from a leadership standpoint and can support your professional development.

First and foremost, common sense, like an any expertise or specialization, cannnot be an ends in itself.  Success in collective endeavors requires a general understanding in order to manage them.
Bottomline: don’t be intimidated by specialization, and don’t run away from it!

Another lesson becomes clear: to be a strategic leader one must be professionally literate.  The prime minister said it best, “to make a shoe one has to study cobbling.” This does not mean having a graduate level education, but one must read and study their profession. Ben-Gurion demonstrates this truth: he was an autodidact. Only with a firm understanding of a subject can one then understand capabilities of a team or a function and appropriately apply them to accomplish the mission.

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