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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15 thoughts on “Understanding the unique Israeli concept of Rosh Gadol (ראש גדול)-updated

  1. I like it! I think, to some extent, I’m Rosh Gadol! I’ve developed a talent for “going around” bureaucracy over the years!

  2. Is this phenomenon also present in the Israeli army? How does play out in a command and control military culture?
    Lévis

    • Yes. It is called tsalash/tarash, ie, medal of honour or demotion. Ie, take the risk and pay the price.
      However, the Israeli military is more orderly than in the past…more brawn, less brains.

  3. Is there an Italian equivalent? (Roshus Gadolus?) They also have crippling bureaucracy, widespread 3rd world-style corruption,and cronyism. Plus Latin dispositions and a huge off-the-books economy on account of what must be a dysfunctional tax system..

    • there are many Italan equivalents to Rosh Gadol. Italy (at least from Rome downwards) is all about this. Every dialect has its own word. In Naples it would be “cazzimm”

  4. Fascinating. Reading your summary of Rosh Gadol (“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.”), I think I have run into this before. And I must have some of this in my make-up because I chafe when there is too much process.

  5. I can think of 2 possibly parallel concepts:

    Chaordic process’ “Good enough for now” (which was a very difficult one for me to learn!).

    & the widely quoted (& widely attributed), “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”

  6. allon rosh gadol is Embedded in the israeli dna code because it is one of the main reasons we servived in the Exile. not following the rules kept us alive.
    it became a way of living. so why change it?
    🙂

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  9. I’m an Israeli that used to live and work in Sweden. At least in my line of work, Sweden was the land of the Rosh Katan. Every decision I took on my own, was criticized for not having been discussed with the group, no matter how trivial. In addition none of those spoiled-brat svennes would take responsibility for things that they were not assigned! It was truly the land of the Rosh Katan. Needless to say, there was a lot of friction between us.
    Caveat emptor to any Israelis thinking of working in Sweden!

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