Understanding the unique Israeli concept of Rosh Gadol (ראש גדול)-updated

Many Israelis have tried to explain to their non-Israeli coworkers what “Rosh Gadol” means. Both the explanation and “Rosh Gadol” itself often can cause bewilderment. The goal is this post is to explain Rosh Gadol to a non-Israeli audience.  I do hope this post will add more understanding to the term.

If you do not understand what a Rosh Gadol is, you will probably find working with Israelis uncomfortable, and managing them next to impossible. An understanding of Rosh Gadol is especially important to non-Israel based managers who need to manage the innovative Israelis with their Rosh Gadol, who get  love the innovation but get pissed off by their organizational behaviours.

Rosh Gadol means literally “big- head”. Israelis rely on human ingenuity much more than structure, process and other components which create systemic scalability. Rosh Gadol is basically the statement: YOU are better than the system; make it happen.

Organizationally, Rosh Gadol entails seeing the whole picture end to end, taking responsibility beyond your own role, and doing everything it takes to get the job done. Rosh Gadol also entails not following processes, taking shortcuts and cleaning up the mess later, challenging authority and telling other people how to do their job, acting first and asking permission later on.

An Illustrative Case of Rosh Gadol:  A customer service agent takes a call from a client who has lost his cell phone in New York and is asking for his phone to be disconnected. The rules state that the client must identify himself by 2 out of three means: ID number, last four numbers of his credit card and passport number.  However, the client‘s wallet has also been stolen so there is no credit card number or passport number, so the agent agrees to disconnect the phone based on the ID number alone, without asking his boss’ permission, against company policy.  “Lama li lishol”, asks the customer service agent; “for what purpose do I need to ask permission?” The boss automatically signs off on this post facto, praising the “Rosh Gadol” of his employee.

Rosh Gadol is not a universally accepted behaviour pattern in organizations, to say the least. It causes huge friction between Israelis and their Asian bosses. The Chinese view Rosh Gadol as a vulgar challenge to authority, Americans often see Rosh Gadol as a cowboy or hero syndrome. Interestingly, the practical Dutch and system-beating Indians appear to admire the Rosh Gadol concept.

Israelis who have not be properly trained see non Israelis who ask their boss for permission to do things as “rosh katan”, small- headed.  For example, an Indian engineer is working on a software bug fix. An Israeli customer field engineers calls the Indian because he needs his help on a a quick fix at a key client site. The Indian engineer needs to ask his boss first about what the priorities are. The Israeli complains that his Indian partner has no Rosh Gadol and is not trustworthy.

(Last week I worked with an Israel team and their Taiwanese boss. At the root of the issues was the Rosh Gadol issue, coupled with the desire of the Taiwanese boss for deference.)

It. is interesting to note that the Israeli Rosh Gadol is not only used to enable innovation. Israelis need Rosh Gadol for almost every aspect of civilian life, because of the crippling bureaucracy and widespread 3rd world-style corruption and cronyism. Things get done despite the system, around the system with Rosh Gadol, and plenty of relationship-peddling.

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