From Shame to Pride
by Amit Kataby

grew up in a small town in Israel. Or at least it felt like a small town—Be’er Sheva is actually the second-largest city in Israel, though it always had a small-town vibe, and not necessarily in a good way. I used to be embarrassed telling people I was from Israel’s desert town. They often posed silly questions, such as, “What did you lose there?” Or, “Do you ride camels to school?” Or they would say, “You don’t look like you’re from Be’er Sheva,” as if they expected its locals to look a certain way.

I have distinct memories of life in Be’er Sheva. Simply put, it was boring—a tired town. No exciting attractions, not enough activities, and not enough places to hang out and meet new people. Everyone knew everyone, and it was the same old, same old. As someone always looking for thrills and new adventures, I realized early that I wasn’t going to find excitement in my hometown and started looking for ways out—the sooner the better.

As someone always looking for thrills and new adventures, I realized early that I wasn’t going to find excitement in my hometown and started looking for ways out—the sooner the better.
Finding a Path

As I began planning my exit, one avenue that stood out was education. Be’er Sheva has one of the most popular universities in the country: Ben-Gurion University, named after the iconic first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, who was a pioneer of the Negev region. It is mostly popular for its rich campus life and community, but that’s not what I found most appealing. I knew BGU had great internship programs abroad, and that suited my needs—I wanted to get as far away from the city as possible. Through an internship in 2010, I left Be’er Sheva for New York. Fast forward 12 years, and I find myself back home in Be’er Sheva, transformed—and to my pleasant surprise, so is the city.

A Modern Community

High-tech complexes, a river park, a skate park, a science museum, an open amphitheater for concerts under the stars, a wealth of local bars and restaurants to choose from, and a new state-of-the-art soccer stadium are now vital elements of the city. Even our soccer team transformed from being the laughingstock of the country to winning five consecutive national championships. But alongside all the urban and cultural growth of the town, what stood out the most for me was something closer, something more personal.

Communities around town have formed, hosting all kinds of gatherings: woodshop workshops, yoga in the park, community gardens, spiritual conversations, LGBTQ events, mommy groups, cooperative daycares—I could go on and on. The conversation has changed. It is no longer an embarrassment to be a local. Just like that, my shame turned into pride.

These communities are providing safe spaces for others to gather for some kind of shared purpose. This has been an identifiable and positive shift from when I was young.

New Philosophies, New Spaces

Inspired by and curious about the transformation and the leadership that sparked such change, I asked to interview the mayor of Be’er Sheva, Ruvik Danilovich. Danilovich is the first mayor to be born and raised in Be’er Sheva. Prior mayors were sent on a mission to “save” the city. But not him; he grew from within, full of love and pride. He barely graduated high school, and grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

Danilovich assumed office in 2009 at the age of 38 and has been re-elected with a 93 percent approval rating each election year. He is by far the most popular mayor this country has ever seen. I was intrigued to learn about the leadership philosophies, values, and principles that guide him and cause this city to thrive.

Decentralize the Bureaucracy

“Bureaucracy is the death of any achievement.”
– Albert Einstein

Bureaucracy denotes slowness and inefficiency. It is by design a system of processes that are meant to keep rules and regulations uniform and under control. As John P. Kotter has described in his Harvard Business Review article, “What leaders really do,” a lot of organizations “suffer” from it. Bureaucracy is the cancer of organizations. It encourages following processes blindly, with little to no critical thinking or decision making, resulting in the avoidance of responsibility. But this system is rooted so deep in public organizations that fighting it is often a losing game.

As a leader who is looking to the future, Danilovich has stressed the importance of collaboration; no big thing is ever done alone. Most of the big developments in town have come about due to the city’s collaboration efforts. In his words, “we created an ecosystem by giving up our ego system.”

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

“People have a great deal of anxiety about making decisions.”
– Alan Watts

Have you noticed the constant doubt that arises before decision making? Questions like, Am I making the right decision? Do I know enough about this? What would happen if…? The truth is that we can never know enough because information is infinite, and we will never know the impact of a decision until we make it. Just thinking about all the possible scenarios makes us anxious, for the simple fact that the outcome is out of our control and we just can’t stand it. This hesitation often leads to indecision, which is itself a decision to avoid responsibility. Being a leader necessarily constitutes making decisions, often tough ones, that impact others.

“You can only make decisions in the present moment, and I don’t believe that there’s a right or wrong decision,” says Danilovich. “I am not afraid of making decisions; that’s what I was elected to do. And when we are clear about our commitment, decision making becomes easier.”

There is No Coalition or Opposition

One of the biggest jobs of a leader—and probably the hardest—is to unite. In a country that is so divided and where there are so many interest groups pulling in different directions, we have lost sight of what’s important for all. Things like education, health, infrastructure, and economy have become bargaining tools—left and right issues. Forgotten is the kingdom as a whole.

Merging Old and New
One of the biggest challenges I face when looking at my leadership journey is waiting for it to be given to me. To be given authority, responsibility, and an opportunity to show my leadership abilities—I feel this has always eluded me. I always found myself disappointed and feeling incapable. Every time I faced an obstacle—if I didn’t get a job or a project I wanted or didn’t get the praise and recognition I thought I deserved—I would default immediately to inferiority. To a victim mode. I constantly found “proof” that I was being overlooked, ignored, and underappreciated.

My homecoming journey has connected me with what set me on this path originally. One of the reasons I left was because I saw possibilities for myself. I knew deep inside I was capable of doing something bigger than what this city had to offer me. And now that I was back, I found myself stuck in the same repeating story as I expected that others would see and appreciate all that I had done and that opportunities would flow my way. Well, they didn’t, and realizing that hit me like a brick in the face. Did I come all this way just to find out that the more things change, the more they stay the same? My first instinct was to pursue more change. Maybe I should go back? Find another job? But what would that do? I realized that the constant search for change was doing nothing but keeping me stuck.

Seeing that made me present to something. When I was interviewing Danilovic, he shared a bit of his personal history: how he grew up poor, barely finished high school, and didn’t make the cut to the big leagues with the local soccer team, which was his lifelong dream. So he took his leadership skills as a captain and poured himself into local politics. He didn’t wait to be given anything or to get approval from anyone, nor did he let that experience define him. He created opportunities out of his commitment to leading.

I asked myself, Am I doing the same? The answer was not really. Because there were opportunities to lead everywhere I looked. Unfortunately, I was so busy looking outside of myself that I missed all of them. That was a game-changer for me, and I began holding myself to my commitments in the present moment. Suddenly I found opportunities all around me without changing anything in my outside environment. At that moment, I no longer needed approval, I stopped waiting for opportunities to be given to me and started seizing them.

The way I see it, Be’er Sheva’s story is a classic underdog story, from the mayor to the soccer team to the individuals that live in it. It taught me that influence is local, that community is everything, that what makes a good underdog story is an uncompromising commitment and radical self-belief. And just like that, with no permission slip, I am unleashing the underdog in me. So can you.

Amit Kataby
Amit Kataby is a group facilitator, leadership coach, powerhouse speaker, and maverick storyteller. She guides people through the journey of self-discovery so they can meet their authentic selves and live a powerful life. Creating a safe space for people to be themselves and share authentically without the fear of being judged is her art.

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