Reminder to Leaders: Self-Deception is Dangerous

Posted on: March 9th, 2012 by Hayim Herring No Comments
Smashed Ten Commandments

Image courtesy of davidwesterfield.net

I recall the saying that truly righteous people are not those who don’t deceive others, but who don’t deceive themselves (and if anyone can help me with a citation, I would appreciate it!). If you’ve ever been in a position of leadership, you’ve probably encountered a situation where you haven’t been completely honest with yourself about a leadership decision. You had a tough choice to make and instead of making the hard choice, you rationalized an easier one. These are difficult situations, where we struggle with our integrity. But experience shows that despite the difficulty, it’s better to be honest with the people who have entrusted you with leadership than to rationalize making an easier decision and engage in self-deception in the process.

The classic example is in this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35). Moses is up on Mount Sinai preparing to bring the Ten Commandments to the people. But the people believe that he will not return and worry that they will be bereft of a leader. In a state of panic, they turn to Aaron, the brother Moses temporarily placed in charge, and persuade him to fashion a god. (According to some Biblical scholars, a possible reason for a calf or young bull is that it was used as a pedestal on which a god stood.) Aaron capitulates with the justification that they will be used as part of a festival offering to God, while the people, who as slaves to Egyptians witnessed a cult of idolatry, worship them as gods.

You can almost reconstruct Aaron’s rationalization. “Moses is delayed, so I’m going to buy time. I’ll collect gold from the people and create these divine symbols.” But the people interpreted the symbols as actual gods, which Aaron should have anticipated. Aaron did have another option. He could have refused the people, despite the potential danger of facing an angry mob if he did so. And if he had, he would have saved himself and the people a heavy punishment.

If you are in a leadership position, you know that it’s simply not possible to make the right choice every single time. But whenever you feel that you’re risking your integrity by rationalizing a decision, it’s best to pause and think again.

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