Leadership is a choice, you must understand its challenges and be willing to take them on, Eliav Zakay, founder and CEO of LEAD, tells The Jerusalem Post.
LEAD is an organization that runs a leadership development program for youth ages 16 through 18. Established in 1999, it is the force behind some of Israel’s leading social initiatives.
“I am a diamond polisher,” Zakay said recently. “A diamond polisher can look at a stone and see something special and polish it until it becomes a diamond. What we know how to do is see the potential of youth and help them shine like diamonds.”
Every year, LEAD’s elite program receives some 6,000 applicants from 10th-grade students. After a screening process that takes several months, some 140 youngsters from all sectors of society are chosen to be groomed as future leaders.
The participants, or “ambassadors,” engage in intensive biweekly meetings, acquiring models and tools to help them develop innovative initiatives that will better society.
The organization’s 800 alumni have run some 400 social initiatives, including the Krembo Wings youth movement and National Teachers’ Day – both of which were developed in LEAD.
Zakay, an organizational psychologist who headed research and development for the IDF’s leadership school for more than a decade, said he always dreamed of founding a new and effective leadership program.
“Leadership is a long and difficult process,” he said. “I realized that if you want to be successful you have to engage youth at a younger age.”
The idea for LEAD was based upon HOBY, a youth leadership program in the US founded in 1958 by actor Hugh O’Brian. Later, South African businessman and philanthropist Morris Kahn decided to open a branch of the program in Israel.
After a few short years, Kahn as the program’s chairman and Zakay as CEO decided to part from HOBY and develop a leadership program unique to Israel.
Since then LEAD, which he still dubs a “start-up,” has become his life’s mission.
“The first thing I decided to do was to do benchmarking around the world and learn from what works and what doesn’t,” Zakay said.
He was surprised to find that the majority of leadership projects around the world fail.
“In order to understand why, we need to go back 2,000 years to learn the short history of paradigms in education,” he said.
• The first paradigm, character development, was the prevalent belief until about 150 years ago; that the best way to prepare the next generation for future challenges is by developing the “right character,” Zakay explained.
However, he said as civilization progressed, people did not have the patience for the long process of character development.
• This led to a new paradigm, competence development, which means if there is a problem you haven’t solved, it because you haven’t found the right book, the right guru or the right educational tool.
“Since that time, everyone entered into a race to seek quick answers and quick results,” he said. “At the end of the day, you come home with very few answers and less money in your pocket.”
• Zakay therefore sought to develop a third paradigm: leadership identity development.
“In this paradigm, we help the youth decide for themselves where they want to go and how they want to live their lives,” he said.
The exclusive two-year program first delves into a full understanding of what it means to be a leader and asks the ambassadors to choose if this is a role they really want.
“Leadership is always to be the best you can... reinvent yourself each day... deal with criticism from those who don’t like what you are doing,” he said. “It is a choice and you need to understand the difficulties and the challenges and be willing to take them on.”
After a year into the process, nearly half the ambassadors drop out. Those who continue, however, are fully committed to honing and developing their leadership skills in an effort to better Israeli society, Zakay said.
The program continues to follow its alumni until the age of 35, offering support and encouragement when needed in their endeavors.
The program’s two decades of success serves as the model that Zakay now hopes to expand to other countries. LEAD has opened a branch in Italy and is in the process of developing other branches in Europe, Kenya and India.
“One of the main challenges facing youth is the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. Currently we have a crisis in our connection with the Diaspora and one of the main challenges will be to re-bridge this gap,” said Zakay.
To help collaborate that effort, LEAD is looking for partners and leaders in Jewish communities abroad, he said.
“We want to develop a model that I believe doesn’t exist yet, this will be a process that we would like to develop together.”