4 Crucial Things Politicians Today Can Learn from Golda Meir

Cover detail from Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel by Francine Klagsbrun

Editor's Note:

Francine Klagsbrun is the author of more than a dozen books. She is a regular columnist for The Jewish Week, a contributing editor to Lilith, and on the editorial board of Hadassah magazine. Her latest book, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel, details the incredible life of Golda Meir. Here, she shares four things every politician today can learn from this great female leader.

Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel, rose through her nation’s ranks to become one of the most powerful leaders in the world. In keeping with the ethos of her time, she denied having any career ambitions – she routinely described herself as only reluctantly accepting a position her party had “thrust” upon her. Yet steadily, rung by rung, she climbed to the top of the ladder. How did she do that, and what lessons might a young politician, intent on moving upward, glean from her? The answers fall into four categories:

1. Hard Work.

From her earliest involvement in political life, Golda undertook the most difficult tasks. As a teenager in Milwaukee, where she and her family lived after emigrating from tsarist Russia, she joined the Socialist Zionist organization Poalei Zion and quickly became its chief organizer and fundraiser. For several years, she traveled around the country to raise money for the group, leaving her new husband at home for weeks at a time, speaking in synagogues and auditoriums, sleeping in members’ homes, and gaining a reputation as someone who gets things done. That reputation followed her when she moved to British mandatory Palestine in 1921. It was clinched in the early 1940s, when, as an executive of the Histadrut, the country’s labor federation, she volunteered to collect a hated emergency tax from working people to help those out of work. In the midst of World War II, with the economy in Palestine depressed and laborers earning barely enough to live on themselves, she stumped from factory to factory to the point of exhaustion, pressing the employed to aid the unemployed. She won her battle and a place in the pantheon of achievers.

2. An Ability to Listen.

Even at the height of power, Golda Meir would sit through hours of meetings hardly saying a word but listening to every side of every argument before reaching a decision about what needed to be done. “Instead of throwing an idea at us,” recalled a former staff member, “she would say, ‘you tell me what to do,’ allowing people to feel they had been heard and their views considered.”

3. Confidence in Herself.

Once she made up her mind, after listening to all viewpoints, almost no one could change it. That trait gave her great credibility, said Amos Manor, former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal secret service. “People felt that she believed in what she said and that she spoke with the authority of that belief, even if she turned out to be mistaken. That was her strength.” When leaders of pre-state Israel wavered in 1948 about whether to declare a state, knowing that neighboring Arab nations would immediately attack, Golda warned against “zigzagging.” The world awaited their declaration, she said, and they must make it with confidence.

4. Integrity.

Of the many leadership traits Golda Meir embodied, her integrity stands above everything. She devoted herself tirelessly to building a homeland for the Jewish people, never once seeking personal gain for herself or her family. When not in an official residence, she lived modestly in a small house she shared with her son and his family in a middle-class neighborhood outside of Tel Aviv. And when out of office, she declined any perks, riding buses and shopping in the supermarket like anyone else. Her integrity gained her the respect of even her severest critics.

Hard work, a willingness to listen to others, confidence in her decisions and utter integrity are traits about Golda Meir that any would-be politician would do well to emulate. Oh, and one more thing: her shrewdness. Like David Ben-Gurion, she resigned or threatened to resign numerous times as a ploy to get her own way. But, she once warned an aspiring young politician, the threat of resigning was a “dangerous tool. One must use it with utmost care, never too often and always ready to take the risk.” It never failed her.