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If you like Ehud Barak's story, you might also like:
William McRaven,
George Mitchell,
Shimon Peres,
David Petraeus,
Colin Powell,
Norman Schwarzkopf
and Elie Wiesel

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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Ehud Barak in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Global Conflicts

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Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak
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Ehud Barak Interview (page: 7 / 8)

Former Prime Minister of Israel

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  Ehud Barak

This young man, who at 17 was kicked out of high school, wasn't very physical, goes into the army and becomes the highest ranking officer in the Israeli Army, the most decorated war hero in Israel. What do you think your superior officers saw in you that allowed you that opportunity?

Ehud Barak: First of all, I should admit that I was lucky, but in retrospect, maybe it means that some inner sense of direction and self-control is more important, even in the military profession. At least in modern life, maybe it is more important than many physical qualities. Of course, along the years I gained some three inches in height and some 30 pounds in weight and muscles during my service. I didn't shave until deep into the third year in service, but later on I became a physically well-shaped youngster. It was just that I came in so early.

But what made your superiors look at you and say, "Here's a leader?"

Ehud Barak Interview Photo
Ehud Barak: I don't know. I believe that it emerged gradually, maybe when I was a young lieutenant. I had a commander, he was my colonel, and he trusted me somehow. He sensed something that I sensed in myself, that under uncertain and somewhat disturbing and threatening situations I didn't lose my judgment of the overall situation, and the sense of details that makes the difference. The sense of action, that you should not just observe the situation, you should do something about it. Then I got another mentor that escorted me for many years. It was Yitzhak Rabin. As a result of the tiny size of the Israeli Army, before sensitive operations even a young lieutenant like me was taken to the Chief of Staff, the commander of the armed forces, to be briefed and debriefed before an operation. So I was exposed to the supreme commander.

In fact, I was exposed to Rabin earlier in a circumstance which meant a lot for me but not for him. I excelled at officer's school, so Rabin gave the second lieutenant insignia to the first five or six students personally. We had our picture taken together, but he, of course, could not even recall it. Some two years later, I was in a unit that was lucky enough to be sent to solve the most delicate and demanding operational problems of the state of Israel. Some of them the public still doesn't know about, even after 40 years. They were very delicate missions that could drive Israel into big trouble if they became complicated during operation. We got something which is not typical of armed forces. Mainly they are very bureaucratic, very hierarchical. I feel as if I spent the first 15 years of my military career out of the armed forces. We used to wear civilian clothes. We were allowed to contemplate whatever we needed in order to approach the problem. We had full freedom of imagination for creative solutions. Once again, the Isadore Rabi story: Knowing how to raise the right question helps you to shape the right answers.

So unlike what you typically relate to military service, I felt that I'm growing up and developing in a kind of environment of the freedom of the spirit, and the freedom of imagination, the freedom to dare whatever you think. It puts a lot of burden of responsibility not to take too much of a risky approach, but it makes you responsible. We used to say, "You are the commander in the field, you are responsible to it. No one can help you from somewhere in some command post in the rear." And it shapes young people, you know, in a unique way if they're ambitious in a way, if they're predisposed for leadership.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Ehud Barak Interview Photo
It might not be an accident that this small unit, which never consists of more than 50 or 60 fighters, raised many of the commanders of the IDF, many future ranking generals. Once again, at the top ranks, ranking generals need something we were educated to acquire at a very early age: thinking of the overall picture, what should be the solution, feeling the lack of limitations in our approach.

On the wing of this hijacked Sabena airliner, we had a future head of the Mossad, future Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, future Chief of Staff, two future prime ministers -- Netanyahu was on the other wing together with me. Where is the egg and where is the chicken here? The rumors about such a unit attract some of the best and most motivated youngsters, and the environment gives these youngsters an opportunity to express themselves, to fulfill themselves, to thrive and grow with the responsibility.

Do these same qualities of leadership apply to civilian life, to your life in politics in Israel?

Ehud Barak: Maybe certain elements. Nothing is similar and everything changes. The ancient Greeks used to say, "Everything is change." But when I left the Armed Forces -- after 36 years in uniform -- as the Commander in Chief of the Israeli Defense Forces, I planned to go to civilian life.

All my life I was stimulated by business activity. It looked to me something -- the closest thing to war. You don't kill the other guy but, you know, there's an active attempt of one to defeat most of the others and a certain partial kind of cooperation, and the fact that you cannot act effectively unless you understand the whole picture and at the same time give attention to details. And sometimes your defeat can come from someone that you don't even see at first. It became clear after two months that (Yitzhak) Rabin wants me to come to join government. The last few years I was deeply involved in his effort to have the agreement with the Palestinians. As the top military authority I have to express my views about what it means, what are the calculated risks that we can afford. And his effort to reach an agreement with the Jordanians, which ended up with a peace agreement with King Hussein. And I had a very close and warm relationship with King Hussein that began years earlier during the Gulf War and even before. And then I was sent by Rabin to meet the Syrian Chief of Staff here at the Blair House where, you know, I was just a civil servant. The Syrian Chief of Staff is number two in the Syrian politics. He is a political figure and the closest friend at the time of President Assad. So I was somehow exposed to these kind of political kind of experiences in this field of security and foreign affairs.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Rabin, I had many hours with him. You know, he somehow transformed from being my mentor as a kind of military officer to my mentor in preparing me for kind of public life. And he called -- I was here in the United States working with a think tank at the Center for Strategic International Studies, became an associate kind of member of this think tank, and I enjoyed it very much and I planned to go into business. And he called me and told me, "Ehud, I want you to join my government as the Minister of Interior." I told him, "Yitzhak, look, I just ended my service of 36 years. What difference it makes if I come after 38 years or something?" So he reminded me something that he said to the audience when I left my office as Chief of Staff. He was just after a visit to Korea. And he told the whole audience when he "farewelled" me that he was just coming from Korea and the new president of Korea told him -- it was in '95 -- that he's the first Korean president, head of state, that did not come from the rank of the general. So Rabin said, "And I told him that I am the first Israeli prime minister -- head of state -- that came from the ranks of general. But Ehud, maybe I'm not the last one." And so he hinted that he wanted me coming to political life.

He (Rabin) called upon me and he told me, "Ehud, look, I cannot explain it, and I cannot prove it. It's not mathematics that you like so much, but in political life timing is everything. You can never, never predict what will follow. I need you now." And so I left it and after a legal kind of cooling off period of some 100 days, I came into his government. And no one of us even kind of contemplated or weighed in mind what really happened, that five months later Rabin was assassinated. I found myself immediately shocked but not out of balance and entering Peres's government as his foreign minister and a few months later Peres was defeated in the general elections, and Netanyahu took over and within another few months I became the leader of the Labor Party. And so it happened that I came somewhat like a storm through political life. It never happened in the political history of Israel that someone who was totally out of political life became a prime minister within four years, and a half or so.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Ehud Barak Interview Photo
I was a minister with two different portfolios before then. It took Shamir some seven or eight years, it took Netanyahu eight years. It took me four years, and I found myself prime minister. I could hardly have enough time to think about it. But I felt that certain qualities are needed which are common to leaders in every aspect of life: the need for some kind of inner sense of direction, an inner compass, a predisposition to lead. It will not necessarily occur to you, but there should be some predisposition in your own genes and the overall imprint of your life experiences that makes you predisposed to lead.

You should be ready to take certain risks, to be able to make decisions in spite of uncertainties, and then to act informed of uncertainties. You should be able to -- somehow to be able to see the overall picture and not lose contact with the details and their crucial kind of importance in what will happen. You should have a certain understanding of either human nature or the material that you are dealing with, but in my case it's human nature. And you should be able to -- I say to think out of the box. Otherwise? You cannot just lead by kind of following the conventions and the two ends.

It's not the same in every area of life. It didn't take me more than one summer at the Weizmann Institute as a freshman in the physics department of the Hebrew University to realize that I will not be feeling self-fulfillment if I become a scientist as my father was dreaming.

When I went through the work of Heisenberg and Schrödinger, not to mention Einstein, it didn't take me long to realize that I would never be able to make this intellectual jump that people like Debye or Max Planck or Heisenberg or Schrödinger made. You could follow it. This is exact. You can know all the work they knew before they made this quantum leap in human knowledge. And you see that clearly it's beyond you. It would never come to my mind in physics, but in other fields of life it could come to my mind.

I knew very early in my life that I will not become a professional pianist. The fingers might not be adequate for this. But I didn't feel deterred by it, I just felt that naturally there are things that I can do, there are things that I cannot do, and if I screen well enough I will find something where I can express myself. I found it in a territory that I could not conceive of in the beginning.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 14:42 EST
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