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Two Pharaohs, two modes of leadership


Pharaoh was a powerful ruler, assumed by his people to have divine qualities. He was surrounded by a group of wise advisers, the greatest sages of Egypt.

But an amazing thing happened. Pharaoh had dreams that neither he nor his wise advisers could decipher. The butler, who once had a dream correctly interpreted by Yosef, informed Pharaoh that there was a Hebrew slave in prison who might be helpful. Pharaoh summoned Yosef, related his dreams, and listened to Yosef’s interpretation. Yosef not only deciphered the dreams, but gave advice on how to deal with the forthcoming years of surplus followed by famine.

Pharaoh responded in a profoundly wise, unexpected manner: “Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom the spirit of G-d is?” He immediately elevated a Hebrew slave to high office, second only to Pharaoh himself.

This response by Pharaoh is worthy of attention. Many leaders go to great lengths to demonstrate their infallibility. They don’t like to appear incompetent. They surround themselves with the best available talent so that they can be sure to come up with the right decisions.

Their egos prevent them from admitting weakness, ignorance, or incompetence

Yet the powerful Pharaoh listened to the advice of a Hebrew slave, and delegated tremendous powers to an unlikely person who wasn’t even Egyptian.

He was wise enough to realize that Yosef had not only interpreted the dreams but had offered a practical plan of action.

Pharaoh did not stand on ceremony. He could have had Yosef cast back into prison, but he did not do that. He was not embarrassed to let the public know that he had needed — and accepted — the advice of a lowly slave.

Because Pharaoh did not allow his ego to get in the way, he was able to make an intelligent decision that ultimately proved successful for Egypt.

Not only was long-term famine averted, but the power of Pharaoh’s own government was strengthened.

But the Torah later informs us of another Pharaoh “who knew not Yosef.” This new Pharaoh, wishing to expand his power, enslaved the Israelites. When Moshe confronted him with the demand from G-d that the Israelites should be freed, this Pharaoh arrogantly responded: “Who is this G-d that I should listen to Him?”

This Pharaoh was drunk with his own power. He could not admit personal mistakes. Even confronted with one plague after another, he maintained a hard heart. He would not give in to Moshe … or to G-d. Pharaoh’s own advisers realized that the situation was out of control and that it would be best to liberate the slaves. But Pharaoh was adamant. He allowed his egotism to cloud his ability to think clearly.

As a result of this Pharaoh’s unwillingness to admit error, his people suffered ten horrible plagues causing massive damage to crops, animals, and the people themselves. Ultimately, the slaves went free in spite of him. But Pharaoh’s ego still pressed him to have his troops pursue the Israelites. The result: the Egyptian chariots and horsemen were drowned in the sea.

There is much to be learned from the approaches of the two Pharaohs.

The first Pharaoh exemplified intelligent leadership and responsible behavior. His goal was not to protect his delicate ego, and not to prove how wise he and his advisers were.

His goal was to address a problem in the way that would yield best results for his people. Because of his clear-headedness, Egypt prospered as never before.

The second Pharaoh exemplified leadership tainted by egotism, allowing emotion to prevail over reason.

His goal was to demonstrate his power, to lash out at those who questioned his judgment, to push aside advice of his own advisers. He was not thinking of the long-term welfare of his people; he was concerned more with showing how strong he was. Because of his egotism, Egypt suffered terrible catastrophes.

When leaders of societies and communities follow the wisdom of the first Pharaoh, the people are well served.

When leaders of societies and communities succumb to the egotism of the second Pharaoh, disaster is sure to follow … not only for the people, but for the leaders themselves.