When Leaders Make Bad Decisions
By David Arnow and Paul Ohana
Jacob acquires Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob, the home-body buys; Esau, the hunter, sells. Twin brothers – very different decisions. The story has a lot to say about what goes into making a good long-term decision.
We can assume that as a good hunter Esau possessed a number of physical skills along with other abilities – the capacity to anticipate his quarry’s moves, to bide his time, to strike at the opportune moment and an element of guile as well. Later in life, Esau amassed great wealth and commanded a force of four hundred men (Genesis 33:1, 9). All this suggests that there was more to Esau than impulsivity. But when he sold his birthright, he had clearly fallen under the spell of his passions. Shouldn’t a grown man have known that the birthright, a double portion of an inheritance, is worth more than a bowl of stew, even if he’s hungry?
Researchers have discovered that a long day of decision making wears down your willpower. A study of Israeli judges found that the more decisions they made without a break, the less discriminating they were: “This tendency can be overcome by taking a break to eat a meal, consistent with previous research demonstrating the effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource replenishment”. If only poor Esau had known!
“This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and CFOs prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts … One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences.” (Sourced NY Times Magazine/Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue).
But what about Jacob? Is he a better decision maker? He too is a hunter of sorts. His quarry is his brother’s birthright, and he devises the perfect snare to obtain it. Like Esau, Jacob studies his prey and observes its vulnerabilities. And he waits for just the right moment to spring his trap. Jacob’s cunning wins him the birthright.
You can think of this as a fair exchange. After all, Jacob and Esau each walk away satisfied from the transaction. But if you’re concerned about the future, you might think twice about suggesting the kind of trade Jacob offered his brother. In this light, Jacob’s decision to acquire Esau’s birthright seems as shortsighted as Esau’s decision to sell it. Taking advantage of a weaker rival does not always produce a long-term victory. The robber barons prompted the Sherman Antitrust Act. Amazon’s squeeze of publishers may lead to similar pushback.
The sale of the birthright sets the stage for an even more dramatic scene: Jacob’s stealing of Esau’s blessing. The lure of the blessing prevents Jacob from fully considering the consequences of his deception. To escape his brother’s murderous rage, Jacob will flee and stay away for twenty years. Aside from a single visit, the brothers meet only to bury their parents.
Beyond this, what are the consequences of Jacob’s decisions? Except for a passing reference in Hosea (12:3), the Bible doesn’t directly condemn Jacob. But the stories it tells about his later life illustrate the costs. Jacob, the deceiver, is deceived over and over again – first by his father-in-law and then repeatedly by his children. Rabbinic and other sources are more overtly critical. The midrash (Gen. Rabbah 67:4) asserts that Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews of Persia was payment for Jacob’s deception of Esau. The Zohar (Ex. 12b) concludes that “Esau’s weeping [over the stolen blessing] brought Israel into captivity, and when their force is exhausted, Israel, through their tears, shall be delivered from him (Esau).”
Jacob and Esau epitomize two faults in decision making. Esau doesn’t bother to look before he leaps. Jacob is a bit too smart for his own good. Jacob and Esau were twins struggling within their mother’s womb. But the struggle between the tendencies they represent lives on within each of us. Sometimes you act like Jacob, sometimes like Esau. When you face a big decision and feel tempted to act impulsively, slow down – sleep on it. If you press your advantage to the utmost, the cost might be higher than you think, because no matter how smart you are, you can never foresee all the consequences.
David Arnow, Ph.D., a Wexner Heritage Alum (NY/Kekst), was a psychologist and lay leader for many years, serving on national commissions on Jewish identity and Jewish education and as President of the New Israel Fund, as well as Vice President of New York UJA-Federation. After graduating the Wexner Heritage program, David wrote his first book: “Creating Lively Passover Seders,” that was followed in 2008 by , “My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries,” which he co-edited with one of his most cherished Wexner teachers, Rabbi Larry Hoffman. He subsequently co-authored “Exodus Conversations: How the Story of the Exodus Speaks to Jews, Christians, & Muslims” and his latest book, “Leadership in the Bible: A Practical Guide for Today,” co-authored with Paul Ohana. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
cross-posted on the Wexner Foundation Blog