Leadership and Trust

Some leaders make promises, but do they follow through?

Commentary on Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

“Once leaders have acquired legitimacy, the formula for establishing future credibility and trust is deceptively simple: promise and deliver.”-Rabbi Nathan Laufer

Promise and deliver. We hear a lot of the first in our world of politics and much less of the second. It’s easy to make promises and so much harder to fulfill them. The notion that once leaders have acquired legitimacy, they need to continually renew trust by delivering on their promises shows that credibility is fluid. Trust is gained over a long period of time but can be lost in a moment.

In his book, The Genesis of Leadership, Rabbi Nathan Laufer masterfully weaves leadership lessons both into and out of Jewish texts, predominantly the Hebrew Bible. In his section on the importance of credibility and trust, Rabbi Laufer looks at the early Exodus struggles, struggles we are reading about now in the synagogue Torah service.

Getting Pharaoh’s Attention

Moses and Aaron try repeatedly to get Pharaoh’s attention only to fail fabulously and undermine their message of liberation. After their first attempt to free the Israelites, Pharaoh dismisses them and the God who sent them without a thought. “Who is God that I should listen to him? I never knew of God, and I will not send out the Israelites.” (Exodus 5:2)

The situation worsens. Not only does Pharaoh reject Moses and Aaron, the people themselves have had enough of protest. In Pharaoh’s anger, he makes life even harder for the slave people in his midst. His taskmasters work them harder and treat them more cruelly. Moses’ credibility, whatever shred he had of it, is lost.

In despair, he cries out to God: “Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people and still You have not delivered Your people.” (Exodus 5:23) Moses wonders if God’s own credibility is at stake because of promises that lacked delivery.

We learn of the peoples’ mistrust of this new, ineffective leadership. In Exodus 6:9 we read the response of the people: “The people did not listen to Moses because of their shortness of spirit and their hard labor.” The people cared nothing about dialogues between Moses and Pharaoh. What they understood was the hard work in front of them that just got harder because of Moses’ intransigence.

Moses Performs Well

What changes? Moses persists and finally performs some signs and wonders that Pharaoh’s magicians cannot do. They come from the sky, signaling a heaven and a mysterious force beyond their comprehension. Why not start here so that Moses can be successful at the very outset and garner the trust he needs right away?

In many ways, the text follows the rhythms of leadership itself. The process of the plagues is the climb toward credibility with the natural ambivalences and swings of feeling that accompany it. Trust is something earned, not something easily given.

Moses risks a great deal in approaching Pharaoh and that creates a base level of trust. His continued persistence earns another. He will not enjoy full trust, however, until he delivers on a promise. Some promises are short-term. Others take years to fulfill.

For Moses, however, fulfilling the promise is not about getting the Jews out of Egypt as much as it becomes getting them to their next destination, the Promised Land. Unfortunately for Moses, the trial and error period will last forty years. Credibility is a fragile and constantly shifting entity in this ancient relationship.

While Moses’ accomplishments may be remarkable, his credibility is not static. As Rabbi Laufer points out, leaders are not trusted because they make a promise and deliver once but because they are able to do so again and again.

Reprinted with permission from the author.


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