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Screen shot of Mahmoud Abbas' making the controversial comments alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Screen shot of Mahmoud Abbas' making the controversial comments alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz

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Abbas' holocaust comments in Berlin: How would you and your business leader reacted?

Comments about the holocaust by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a press conference in Berlin last Wednesday sparked an outcry – and raise the question how you as a Communications Director and your business leader should react if confronted by a similar situation.

Abbas was asked in the presence of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz whether he would apologise for the PLO terror attack on the Munich Olympics fifty years ago. He countered (in Arabic) that Israel had committed "50 attacks, 50 holocausts". The press conference was then wrapped up by government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit, without taking further questions or even giving Scholz a chance to respond.

Germans talk about the holocaust like Singaporeans talk about race. It is such a sensitive issue that the topic is either shut down quickly or avoided altogether. Abbas' unspeakable comments were akin to a foreign dignitary standing alongside a Singapore government minister and making disparaging comments about a particular race or religion.

While much of the condemnation for the holocaust comment is being directed at Abbas, who has since watered down his comments, Chancellor Scholz has not been spared. The criticism centres on the fact that he did not counter Hebestreit’s wrap-up by immediately condemning Abbas' comments and sending him packing.

Scholz said later on Twitter:

I am disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud #Abbas. For us Germans in particular, any relativization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable. I condemn any attempt to deny the crimes of the Holocaust.

— Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz (@Bundeskanzler) August 17, 2022

We could argue whether Scholz, as Chancellor, should have reacted faster or even anticipated controversial comments from Abbas. But that's not the point of this column.

The two questions for you as a Communications Director are:

  1. How would your business leader have reacted if s/he was similarly blind-sided at a press conference, and
  2. How would you have reacted if you were government spokesperson Hebestreit?

On the first point, it's easy to say Scholz should have reacted straight away.

Would your business leader have known what to say in the heat of the moment?

The unfortunate truth is: very few people are quick enough on their feet to respond under pressure with measured and appropriate comments.

Check your business leader's CliftonStrengths report. Those endowed with Deliberative, Intellection or Analytical tend to weigh their words carefully before they speak. Rushing into a response runs completely counter to their nature. They are unlikely to be able to fire back a quick-witted response. Their response will be appropriate and well thought-through, but much later.

On the other hand, those with Activator, Communication or Command will respond much faster, with Activators possibly even interrupting Abbas before he finished speaking. But whether their words are the right ones is less certain. They are prone to speaking first and thinking later and might receive even more criticism for a knee-jerk reaction. The risk is your business leader would have reacted in haste, only to reconsider their choice of words afterwards, or even whether silence would have been a better response.

Which leads me to the second question: what would your reaction have been if you were Hebestreit?

Would you have jumped in and wrapped up the press conference? Then you would now be criticised for not giving your business leader a chance to respond.

Or left a pause to give your business leader the word and a chance to respond? But if your business leader is the sort who needs time to think you would now be accused of leaving them hanging. You would have caused them even more embarrassment as they stood there in awkward silence, trying to think of something appropriate to say.

Press secretary Hebestreit took the fall for the issue, revealing Chancellor Scholz had berated him for wrapping up the press conference before he had a chance to counter Abbas' comment.

Maybe Hebestreit has a Discipline talent, which means he thrives in an environment of order and structure, process and procedure. But this is at the expense of flexibility and the ability to change course rapidly.

So why didn’t Scholz counter Hebestreit’s wrap-up and continued the press conference to counter Abbas’ comment?

This might also reveal something about Scholz. It hints that he has a Responsibility talent – the same mindset that upholds integrity, that honours commitments, and that keeps promises. In that moment, following Hebestreit's lead is the same thought process that ensures he does the right thing by taxpayers.

Does your business leader faithfully follow your instructions? Or kicks out and takes charge?

To ensure your business leader is ready for such circumstances, first understand your business leader's mindset, then provide customised, individual coaching accordingly.

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Mark Laudi

Mark Laudi

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