Leading by Connecting

By Naphtali Hoff

This week’s Torah portion tells of a severe famine in Egypt, one which had been foretold by the prisoner-turned-viceroy some seven years earlier. We are well aware of Joseph’s suggestion to store grain as a strategy to maintain his countrymen during the predicted food crisis (see Genesis 41:34–36).

What is striking, however, was Pharaoh’s immediate decision to install Joseph, heretofore a slave and prisoner, as the second highest-ranking official in the entire country for the express purpose of implementing his own strategic recommendation.

And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants … And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you, you shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled. Only in the throne will I be greater than you. (Ibid., 37–40)

There are many brilliant individuals who have affected governmental or military policy throughout the annals of human history who were never installed into a formal seat of authority. Their job was to share ideas and strategies, and then watch people in positions of political or military power actualize their thoughts. What was it that Pharaoh saw in this Hebrew dream interpreter that inspired him to promote Joseph to the lofty position of viceroy?

Perhaps a hint to what motivated the Egyptian ruler can be gleaned from a relatively nondescript sequence found at the end of this week’s Torah portion, which describes Joseph’s role during the most acute period of the famine.

And there was no bread in all the land, for the famine was very severe … And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and … brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. And when the money was all spent … all of the Egyptians came to Joseph, and said, “Give us bread. Why should we die in your presence, for the money is gone?” And Joseph said, “Give your cattle and I will give you food for your cattle” … And they brought their cattle to Joseph and he … fed them with [food] for all their cattle for that year.

When that year ended, they came to him the second year, and said to him, “Our money is spent. My lord also has our herds of cattle. There is nothing left … but our bodies and our lands. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh. Give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate.” And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. (Ibid 47: 13–20)

Consider the subtle yet powerful transition that transpired between the first exchange involving Joseph and the Egyptian people in year one and the second conversation the following year. In the first year, Joseph collected all of the nation’s money as payment for the food that he provided. When the money ran dry, he accepted their animals as payment. However, at that time the people still viewed the viceroy as a public servant, demanding that he “give [them] bread” so that they not “die in [his] presence.”

In the latter sequence, however, when their land and their very selves replaced money and livestock as the payment for future food purchases, one can discern a significant shift in the people’s attitude. Instead of concerning themselves with their personal needs, the Egyptians now worried about the country first, and saw themselves and their land as the basis for national growth and prosperity. “Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh. Give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate.”

No longer was survival all about them. In one short year, Joseph had helped an entire nation to achieve a complete attitudinal turnaround, by prioritizing the needs of the nation before their own. How was Joseph able to achieve this incredible transformation? What was it about Joseph that inspired people to think beyond themselves, to go out on a personal limb for the ultimate benefit of their country? Consider how our sages detail the personal touch that Joseph gave to feeding the planet:

All the nationalities came to purchase food and would bring taxes to Egypt and a gift for Joseph. And he would speak to each individual in his own language. (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, 39)

Joseph nurtured the world during the famine the way a shepherd cares for his flock. (Genesis Rabbah, 91:5)

Joseph understood that if he was going to guide the Egyptian nation through that tumultuous period, he had to avoid a heavy-handed bureaucratic disconnect and instead develop the personal connections that would allay fears and encourage individuals to put themselves at personal risk for their collective benefit.

When Pharaoh asked Joseph to interpret his troubling dreams, he never requested more than an interpretation. However, Joseph went beyond the ruler’s request and offered a strategy for national survival. The sense of personal connection and care that Joseph displayed, despite having had only known the country from the vantage point of an abandoned slave and falsely accused prisoner, indicated to Pharaoh that this was the perfect person to lead his country out of potential catastrophe.

Joseph used personal connections to inspire his people to set aside their personal needs and give of themselves to ensure national survival. In addition, he fostered within them a deep-seated appreciation and uncompromised fealty to the rulers and their country. “And they said, ‘You have saved our lives; let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.’” (Genesis 47:25)

Personal connection sits at the center of all leadership endeavors. Sure, a ruler (or in our terms, a manager) can impose his will and use the power of his position to gain compliance. But if a person wants to be a leader, to inspire others to think creatively and see their mission and the company’s agenda as one and the same, then they need to make a deep, personal connection. Speak their language. Demonstrate care and concern about them as people. Help them to see the mutual benefit. By doing so, you can help others see how your agenda is really their agenda, something that they should invest in and get excited about.