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What Should Keep Leaders Up at Night Parshas Bo

You know what I really don’t understand, how we still have blind spots.

How could it be that we have self-driving cars driving around the country, that we are seriously talking about flying cars, and we still haven’t figured out how to change lines safely without smashing into an oil tanker?! We have cars that self-park but I still have to strain my neck every time I change lanes?! What am I missing here?

Blind spots are apparently here to stay. And this is true not only with driving but also with life itself. I recently stumbled upon an article about blind spots, and it truly kept me up at night, and it takes a lot to keep me up at night.

It was an article by Jerry Useem, writing for the Atlantic, and it was titled, Power Causes Brain Damage. I’ll read you a few excerpts:

“If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt… But can it cause brain damage?

When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.”

The article goes on and on, with study after study, demonstrating the simple and yet scary point that positions of power can impair the way leaders think.

Now I sent this to all my friends who are in positions of leadership; CEO’s, rabbis, principals, and business owners. And they all wrote back, “C’mon, that’s ridiculous, I know exactly what I’m doing, I never made a mistake in my life!”

Seriously, this is an idea that should keep anyone in any leadership position up at night. You’re doing such a good job that you may have lost your marbles.

I’d like to share with you two case studies of leaders; leaders who both made mistakes, big ones, but dealt with it in very different fashions.

In a month and a half we’ll be reading Megillas Esther. The climactic section, the turning point of the story, takes place at night, in Achashverosh’s bedroom when he is visited by Haman. Now Achashverosh made a lot of mistakes. He empowered Haman and he gave Haman free reign in his empire. But that night, when Haman visits and Achashverosh begins to understand who Haman really is, the chapter begins by stating, בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַה֔וּא נָדְדָ֖ה שְׁנַ֣ת הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ

“On that night” that fateful night, “the king couldn’t sleep.” The Megillah isn’t telling us that he drank too much coffee that day, or that had too much sugar. Not being able to sleep is the Megillah’s way of telling us that he was starting to second guess himself; he tossed and turned, questioning his decisions as a leader, and in doing so, he realized a few things – he realized he never rewarded Mordechai, he realized he put too much faith in Haman, and ultimately, he saved himself and his empire before disaster struck. But it only came about because he tossed and turned, because he didn’t blindly march forward without any reflection.

Contrast that with what we read today. On the night of the Plague of the Firstborn, something the Egyptians were warned about numerous times. Moshe, the man who warned him, at this point, had a batting average of 1.000. And yet, you know what Pharaoh was doing that night?

וַיָּ֨קָם פַּרְעֹ֜ה לַ֗יְלָה ה֤וּא “Pharaoh got up on that night.” Where did he get up from? Rashi says, mimitoso, from his bed. Somehow, despite all the warnings, Pharaoh blindly ignored the signs and marched on, oblivious to the danger that lay ahead.

Two leaders, grave mistakes. One of them questioned himself, and went from villain to hero, and one never stopped to questions hi judgment and brought upon himself eternal shame.

A good leader is constantly second-guessing themselves, a good leader is constantly speaking to colleagues, a good leader is constantly speaking to others to ensure that they are not missing things in their blind spot. Because if they don’t do so, if they don’t second-guess, then by the time they get up, the plague has already struck their company, their school, their synagogue, and it’s too late.

It’s not just leaders though who need to toss and turn a little more before going to bed, it’s all of us. Let me share with you a couple of well-known studies: High-tech firms, after polling their employees, discovered that 32-42% of software engineers rated their skills as being in the top 5% of their companies. A nationwide survey found that 21% of Americans believe that it’s ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ that they’ll become millionaires within the next 10 years. Medical technicians overestimate their knowledge in real-world lab procedures. In a study of faculty at the University of Nebraska, 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability, and more than 90% rated themselves above average. (Forbes Magazine) I’m no mathematician, but I do realize that mathematically, that makes no sense.

This psychological blind-spot is dubbed the Dunning-Kruger Effect and it essentially states that we, and by we, I mean all of us, frequently overestimate our competency. If that’s not scary enough, studies have found that it is those with the least abilities who overestimate more than others.

Are you uncomfortable yet? Will you be sleeping soundly tonight?

There’s one other area where we all have blind spots that I would be remiss not to mention, and that is relationships. Have you ever been in a relationship and everything, as far as you were concerned, was going well, and then one day, boom, the relationship is over? Have you ever been in a prolonged dispute with someone and you just don’t understand the other party? Why? What? They make no sense.

Chances are, there is something in your blind spot, and you just can’t see it. And sometimes, and here’s the really scary part – all the tossing and turning, all the self-reflection doesn’t really work. That’s why it’s called a blind spot – you cannot see it! It’s like that car that just somehow slipped into your blind spot even though you’re pretty sure you checked before you changed lanes…

If we were to look for a role model, an example of a someone who somehow transcended these blind spots, it would certainly be the first leader of the Jewish nation, Moshe. Yes, he made mistakes, but his legacy is that of, v’haish Moshe anav mikol ha’adam, his legacy is that of the humblest man to have lived. Clearly, Moshe did not suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, nor did he suffer from what is dubbed as the Hubris Effect; the arrogant leader syndrome. He remained humble, he remained aware of his flaws, and the question for us, is how? Because we all have blind spots, we mis-judge others, overestimate and maybe underestimate ourselves, we all get stuck in one way of thinking and can’t see anything else. How do we get past that?

Our Sages teach us that a captive cannot break free from his own chains. What that means is that we need others to help us. When Moshe, charged with his mission, travels to Egypt for the very first time, he does something rather strange; he brings his wife. Now his wife was not given a specific role in the redemption of the Jewish People and so the commentators struggle to find meaning in this suicidal act. It would be like an American soldier bringing his civilian-wife along for the invasion of Normandy. Why would he bring his beloved wife, a free woman, to Egypt?

But perhaps the answer is simple, Moshe needed his wife. Moshe needed to have someone who can help him, who can guide him, who can correct him – as she does on the first leg of the journey! Moshe makes a poor judgment about circumcising his son, and it is Tzipporah who steps in to redirect him.

We all need a someone. And it doesn’t have to be a wife. When Tziporah ultimately returned to Midyan, Aharon, Moshe’s brother stepped in, and played that role. We all need a someone who can see what we can’t see, who can understand what we can’t understand, and can allow us to drive safely on the road called life.

Clementine Churchill, on the worst day of Winston Churchill’s life, the day Hitler invaded Paris, wrote her husband the following note: “My Darling Winston. I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be.” Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming”—with the attendant danger that “you won’t get the best results.”

Listen to how she wrote her note, “My darling Winston.” Feel the love and respect that she used in trying to rein in her husband’s notorious anger. It came from a place of love.

Not only do we need to give the feedback with love, those of us on the receiving side need to be receptive to hearing criticism. I recently had the most refreshing conversation. I was speaking to someone about davening in shul, and he said, “Rabbi, you know my wife told me that I’m tone deaf.”

And I thought – actually, I told him, that’s amazing! Most people who are tone deaf don’t have a clue! Obviously, his spouse felt comfortable telling him that and he gave her the space to do so. We’re all tone deaf in one way or another and unless we allow others to let us know that, we’ll keep on singing off-key.

With an Aharon, with a Tzipporah, with a Clementine, or with a really good friend, we can get past our blind spots. If we open ourselves up to honest feedback, as hurtful as it sometimes is, we can ride the road of life, accident-free.

Drive safely and sleep soundly.

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