Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s public missteps stem from his poor grasp of details. He’s at his best when looking at the forest; he loses his way and gets battered when he makes his way through the trees. He is a great storyteller, and has coined some of the headlines of our political discourse: “My fellow slaves,” “Where’s the money?” “Riki Cohen,” “Equalizing the burden.” He could be the national copywriter. But when he must abandon the catchphrases, return to Earth and navigate the facts, he screw up.
Lapid rightly asks where’s the money, but can barely control the budget mechanism, its regulations and clauses. That’s how he falls into idle promises to cut funding to Haredi schools and yeshivas, into unfair alcohol taxes that generate massive protest and into the stunt of his “bro,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who led an empty reform of the military draft aimed at preserving the special benefits of the hesder yeshivas that serve Bennett’s constituency. Or how he forgets his own well-reasoned argument against creating a biometric database. Lapid’s extreme sensitivity to criticism, and his tendency to respond aggressively to Facebook comments only increase the embarrassment when the facts come to light.
Lapid admitted his weakness in his initial “Riki Cohen” Facebook post, in which he described the budget debates during his first days in office, saying, “Yet another endless column of numbers was shown on the big screen,” and “Our job is not to balance Excel spreadsheets.” One can imagine him there, surrounded by treasury Budget Division clerks who wear him out with more and more data that all look like an incomprehensible blur to him. It’s no wonder Lapid asked them to stop and diverted the discussion from the columns of numbers to a story about a woman from Hadera.
But it didn’t stop with that debate. The finance minister is bombarded with statistics, Excel files and subclauses all day long. The budget proposal has 2,190 programs, divided among more than 12,000 regulations, each of which contains part of the answer to the question, Where’s the money. The minister is the one who issues regulations amending customs fees, purchase taxes and mandatory payments. These documents are full of details, and behind each sentence is a little story about someone who profits and someone else who loses as a result of the change. “Sign here,” says the aide, the legal adviser or the clerk responsible for the document, and Lapid takes his pen and signs.
It’s not easy, even for someone who enjoys reading phone directories and statistical reports. It’s difficult to decipher and understand a line like, “In the sixth addition to the primary order, in Column A, after item 1010 07 22, comes 1060 07 22,” which is part of the customs order Lapid signed on June 4. But it may well be that this line hides the next political ruckus, the spark that will send the masses out into the streets. Maybe those numbers conceal something that will severely harm Riki Cohen and the rest of the middle class. Perhaps it hides a treat for some tycoon. Who knows?
There’s a solution to Lapid’s distress. He should read “Managing Oneself,” a Harvard Business Review article by the American management guru Peter Drucker. In it he will learn that many great people, such as Winston Churchill, suffered as he did at school and it did not prevent them from succeeding in politics.
The trick lies in knowing your abilities and your limitations, understanding how you best absorb information (through reading or through hearing) and how you learn best − by speaking, writing or experience. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needed assistants to read him the newspapers, mail and intelligence material. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu learns when he draws or writes speeches. Lapid learns by writing his columns.
An executive or a politician who understands his capabilities needs a team of aides that can compensate for his limitations. Lapid needs someone who knows how to read those columns of numbers and translate them into a story. The treasury excels in producing “Excelniks” who have a firm grip on the details and could give the minister confidence. Former officials Nir Gilad and David Brodet come to mind.
Lapid’s imbroglios show that he doesn’t have aides who can protect him from himself. If he wants to avoid any more slip-ups and advance from the treasury to the Prime Minister’s Office, he must upgrade his staff.