Is toxic leadership the inevitable norm? Do people just need to suck it up and endure the chaos until they can retire? Are alternative ideas about healthy leadership possible to carry out or are they illusions that distract people from being productive? The story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt has important insights about leadership. Two leaders (Moses and Pharaoh) engage in competing agendas that launch far-reaching consequences. The narrative presents a dichotomy between good and bad leaders that defines how to approach the complex tasks of leadership in a different way. Pharaoh got it wrong from the start of the narrative. In his case the story is a progression that starts from a biased opportunism that accelerates to self-destructive hubris that left him at a strategic disadvantage. Moses on the other hand wins yet enters the uncharted experience of birthing a nation. Moses has to grow as a leader or face a future no different from what characterized Pharaoh.
Over the next several articles I will investigate the behaviors of Pharaoh. What characterizes a toxic leader and what insights can be gleaned about the motivations? The answer to this question will help decide the possibility of change for any leader. So here is the first lesson – toxic leaders spurn history – bad leaders hide behind it.
Pharaoh is introduced in the Exodus story as a leader who did not know Joseph. The history behind Joseph explained the contemporary presence of the Hebrews and their privileged location within the nation. Joseph had saved Egypt during a time of severe famine with his prophetic insight and his administrative skill. Pharaoah’s predecessor honored Joseph’s contribution to the survival of the kingdom by providing a place for his family (the Hebrews) to live and thrive.
However the new Pharaoh’s fear obscured his historical perspective – he viewed the Hebrews as a threat to his power. It is one thing to hide behind history as a reason to avoid making mistakes. Such a posture is a fast rode to mediocrity. However, Pharaoh takes a more radically ignorant path. The threat presented by the Hebrews was rooted in nothing more than the fact that Hebrews were not Egyptians. In the void of Pharaoh’s lack of historical grasp (that explained why these foreigners were in the country and their contributions to the nation’s thriving existence) ethnocentrism rushed in and created a narrative of fear and mistrust. Pharaoh rewrote the history of the nation in his actions and the outcomes were not good.
Who is writing the history of your organization and on what foundation are they writing it? The narrative determines the culture of the organization and the culture determines the values and behaviors. It is odd that something went missing in Pharaoh’s education and in his development. What happened? Bad leaders don’t work in a vacuum they work with the permission (either implied or overt) of their followers. Jean Lipman-Blumen’s work outlines this uncomfortable reality. She writes:
…What are the forces that propel followers again and again, to accept, often favor, and sometimes create toxic leaders? Isn’t it high time we come to grips with why we usually let toxic leaders mistreat us and depart when it suits their purposes? …Still, the majority of followers stay the course, many because the barriers to escape seem much too strong, be they financial, political, social, psychological, or existential – or, worse yet, some overwhelming combination of these formidable obstacles.[i]
Don’t ignore or dismiss Lipman-Blumen’s point. As followers we have a responsibility toward leaders. If we implicitly or overtly allow bad leaders to continue in their power infused invectives of bad behavior then we must ask ourselves what is it we think we get from these leaders and what would really happen if we said, “no” to them? Perhaps Pharaoh had eliminated the bold followers who disagreed with his unique views. We don’t have that part of the story. What we do have is the insight that for tyrants to succeed they have to divest themselves from the encumbrance of history to rewrite history for their own support and sell it as a destiny. Pharaoh succeeded at this and turned the tables on the Hebrews first oppressing them then enslaving them. When you see a leader who is ignorant of history consider it a challenge to help them see from a larger perspective. If he or she is not open to understanding the history of the organization specifically and has little appreciation of history generally then in the words of Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
Pharaoh rewrote history to reposition the Hebrews in society. He framed their existence as a threat to the well-being of the nation. He initiated structures to limit the threat. Finally he oppressed them to maximize a benefit to the nation at minimal cost. How is labor relations characterized in your organization? A connection exists between the value a leader places on history and the way they ultimately treat people. What kind of leader are you? Are you a student of history or are you writing your own history? The answer indicates the trajectory of your leadership.
[i] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive Them. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 24.