7 leadership lessons I learned from former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin

One lesson I’ve learned from reading biographies of Begin and others is that you don’t need to be perfect to be a great leader.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, US President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sit together in the sunshine outside the White House on March 26, 1979, ready to sign the peace treaty based on the Camp David Accords of September 1978. (Photo by Wally McNamee via Getty Images)

Great leaders are great teachers.

My favorite thing to read (when I’m not reading about current events in Israel for “This Week Unpacked”) is biographies and autobiographies.

Whether it’s a U.S. president, first lady, Supreme Court justice, Israeli prime minister, civil rights activist, athlete, movie star, fashion designer or someone else, I love reading the real-life stories of their lives.

Of course, there’s nothing like firsthand experience to give you valuable insights you should know. But the lessons I’ve learned from exploring the lives of great leaders have stuck with me.

One lesson I’ve learned from them all is that you don’t need to be perfect to be a great leader. Every leader has their strengths and successes and their weaknesses and failures.

Even the greatest leaders in history, although they achieved truly extraordinary things, were not “larger than life” — they were real people. They had their ups and downs and their highs and lows. They are great teachers because they can inspire and motivate us, and they can also help us avoid potential pitfalls.

And, one of my favorite leaders to learn about is Menachem Begin, who was an Israeli politician, the founder of the Likud party and Israel’s sixth Prime Minister. He was also a tireless fighter for the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

After losing his parents and brother in the Holocaust, Begin led a successful revolt against the British in Palestine to achieve Jewish independence, and signed a historic peace treaty with Egypt. He was also a fierce advocate for the unity of the Jewish people and stopped a civil war from breaking out between Jews.

For all of his accomplishments, his legacy was far from perfect. Here are 7 powerful lessons I’ve learned from Begin that will make you a stronger leader.

1. Be a leader who is driven by love.

Menachem Begin was driven by love in both his life and leadership. For example, shortly after winning the 1977 election, a reporter asked him if there was anything he wished to say. Begin responded by thanking his wife Aliza and speaking of his great love for her.

Similarly, speaking at the White House State Dinner in 1979, Begin thanked Aliza for giving him the “ability to persevere” and dedicated a lot of his short speech to talking about her. 

When Aliza died (and after the hundreds of Israeli fatalities during the Lebanon War), Begin was devastated and was never the same.

Begin was also driven by his love for causes he deeply believed in. 

Whether it was fighting against the British to achieve Jewish independence, serving as Israel’s Prime Minister, or negotiating a historic peace treaty with Egypt, he dedicated his life to the security and dignity of the Jewish people.

Be a love-driven leader: What is a cause or value to which you are wholeheartedly committed? Which value(s) are most dear and important to you? In what ways are you driven by love as a person and leader, and how could you lean into this even more?

2. Be generous and go out of your way to help others (including those who are different from you).

As strong as Begin’s commitment was to the Jewish people, he believed that his responsibility extended to others as well.

From 1977 to 1979, Prime Minister Begin opened the gates of the Jewish state to 360 Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing the Communist takeover of their country. He famously compared the refugees’ situation to the plight of Holocaust refugees, saying:

“We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War…traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused…Therefore it was natural…to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”

He believed that the purpose of the Jewish state was not only to look out for its own immediate interests and needs, but was to help others as well.

Be a more generous leader: In what ways do you look beyond yourself or your close family and friends? How could you help others who are different from you? What is one way in which you want to be more generous and help others?

3. Know when it is time to be bold and take preemptive action.

Having fled the Nazis and losing his parents and brother in the Holocaust, Begin was no stranger to the presence of evil in society. 

The experience of his own family and the Jewish people in World War II always stayed with Begin, and as Prime Minister, he saw his main obligation as protecting the Jewish people.

He famously said, “There won’t be another Holocaust in the history of the Jewish people. Never again. Never again.” 

“If an enemy of our people says he seeks to destroy us, believe him. Don’t doubt him for a moment… Never pause to wonder what the world will think or say,” Begin also said. 

These statements translated into what became known as the “Begin Doctrine,” which is that Israel will not allow any country or regime that calls for its destruction to develop the weapons to achieve that goal.

Begin established this doctrine in 1981 when he sent Israeli fighter planes to bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, and subsequent Israeli prime ministers have invoked it.

Begin reminds us that there is definitely an art to knowing when to take action in a challenging situation. Sometimes it is best to exercise restraint and see how things unfold. Other times, it is necessary to act to stop the situation from getting a lot worse.

Know when to take action: How do you determine as a leader when to “hold back” and when to take action? Have you ever taken preemptive action to prevent a situation from getting out of hand? What are your red lines that you will not tolerate?

4. Take responsibility for your team’s performance.

In 1976, Begin (who was then the leader of the opposition in the Knesset) said the following to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin:

“Mr. Prime Minister, you who are the leader of the team, I say that while your colleagues have a share in the decision-making responsibility, upon your shoulders rests an extra morsel of responsibility, and who can weigh that extra morsel?”

Begin practiced what he preached. As a Prime Minister, he always took responsibility for the actions of his Cabinet members, even when he was not directly involved and when things turned out to be a complete disaster.

For instance, Begin took responsibility for the hundreds of Israeli fatalities during the 1982 Lebanon War, as well as for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and Deir Yassin. 

He did this even though he was not aware of the full details of the military plan to attack Deir Yassin, and his Defense Minister Ariel Sharon did not disclose parts of the plan that led to the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.

Take responsibility for your team: Do you take responsibility for your team’s performance when things go wrong? How do you handle this situation in “public” and privately with your team? Do you think leaders should take responsibility for their teams, or do you think each teammate should accept responsibility for his or her own actions?

5. Know your principles and values, but be willing to compromise on them to achieve something greater.

Begin was a leader who had strong principles and beliefs, but he was also willing to compromise on his principles to achieve something even greater.

A great example of this was his leadership in the peace process between Egypt and Israel.

Begin strongly believed that all the biblical land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. In the 1960s, he said that “settlements ought to be erected in all parts of the Land of Israel,” explaining that such settlements were “the towns of the Land of Israel promised to the seed of Abraham.”

But in 1979, Prime Minister Begin agreed that Israel would withdraw all its settlements in the Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt. At the time, he said that the decision to give control of the Sinai back to Egypt “is perhaps the deepest pain in my heart.”

Stuart Eizenstat, who served as the White House Domestic Affairs Advisor to President Jimmy Carter during the Egypt-Israel peace process, put it this way: “[Begin] had to make compromises with his own philosophy, and he did so because he wanted peace.”

Be willing to compromise: Where do you choose to compromise for the sake of shalom bayit, peace in your family, home, relationship, class, workplace or somewhere else? What did you / do you have to sacrifice in order to achieve or maintain the “peace”?

6. Promote unity and harmony on your team.

“Ashkenazi! Iraqi! Yehudim, Jews!” Begin famously declared. 

Begin believed in the power of Jewish unity — that the Jewish people are much stronger against their enemies when they are united around a shared cause.

He demonstrated just how committed he was to Jewish unity during the Altalena Affair.

The Altalena was a ship which the Irgun (the Jewish underground militia that Begin led) organized to bring weapons and fighters, including many Holocaust survivors, to Israel in June 1948.

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion believed that the new state must have one unified army. As the ship approached Israel, Ben-Gurion saw the Irgun fighters aboard as a threat, and ordered his soldiers to fire on the ship. 

At this moment, Begin, who was aboard the Altalena, ordered his soldiers not to fire back. (Learn more about the Altalena Affair — listen to our video or podcast episode.)

Begin later said that he considered his actions and leadership during the Altalena Affair to be the greatest accomplishment of his life.

Like Begin, great leaders promote unity on their team and in their organization. They know that a unified team is not only more fun to be a part of — it also achieves more.

Babe Ruth said it best: “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Be a unifier leader: Of course, all teams experience disagreements and conflicts from time to time, but a great leader unifies people around a common vision, mission or project. How do you attempt to create unity and harmony on your team? How do you build trust and manage trust issues within your team?

7. You don’t need to be perfect to be a great leader.

As a leader, Begin experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. 

In his lifetime, he achieved peace with Egypt, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, prevented a civil war in the Altalena Affair, and brought the Likud party to power in Israel, ushering in a new era in Israeli politics.

He also took responsibility for the hundreds of Israeli fatalities during the 1982 Lebanon War, as well as for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and Deir Yassin. 

After the death of his wife Aliza, and after the Lebanon War turned out to be a complete disaster, he resigned from his position as Prime Minister and spent the next nine years in virtual seclusion until his death in 1992.

Jewish tradition teaches that there is no such thing as a perfect person or leader. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote:

“The Torah never hides from us the faults, errors, and weaknesses of our great men…Were they without passion and without internal struggles, their virtues would seem to us the outcome of some higher nature, hardly a merit and certainly no model that we could hope to emulate.”

At the end of the day, Begin was a real person who loved his family and the Jewish people, who achieved extraordinary things.

Know yourself as a leader: What are your strengths and weaknesses? For every strength we have, when overused, there is a flip side and it can become a weakness. Is there a strength that you have that you are prone to overuse? How do you keep your strength a strength?

Learn more about Menachem Begin

To learn more about Begin, check out my favorite biographies and other resources about him below:

Yehuda Avner, “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership

Daniel Gordis, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul

Avi Shilon, “Menachem Begin: A Life

Unpacking Israeli History Podcast, “The Altalena: Israel’s (Almost) Civil War

Unpacking Israeli History Podcast, “Sabra and Shatila: What Happened and Why it Matters