History is replete with examples of leaders attempting to implement significant changes by official mandate or proclamation only to be severely disappointed when the people failed to accept those changes. A classic example is when the United States Congress attempted to grant equal rights to people of color following the Civil War. While various constitutional amendments were ratified and laws passed, by the end of the 1870s it was clear that racism was alive and well in the Old South and the period of Reconstruction was seen as a failure. It would take nearly another 100 years for civil rights to be granted to African Americans and, more importantly, recognized by the country’s white majority.
Unfortunately, when it comes to cultural transformation, a slow educational process is required. While official laws can mandate certain activities – i.e., black people can sit in the same section of the bus as white people – without the accompanying cultural infrastructure to support these changes, the laws will fail to achieve their goals. There are no quick fixes.
Even when it comes to changes within a corporation or place of work, the culture must either support those changes or be carefully nurtured to accept them. Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter wrote: “Over the past decade, I have watched more than 100 companies try to remake themselves into significantly better competitors. They have included large organizations (Ford) and small ones (Landmark Communications), companies based in the United States (General Motors) and elsewhere (British Airways), corporations that were on their knees (Eastern Airlines), and companies that were earning good money (Bristol-Myers Squibb). These efforts have gone under many banners: total quality management, reengineering, rightsizing, restructuring, cultural change, and turnaround. But, in almost every case, the basic goal has been the same: to make fundamental changes in how business is conducted in order to help cope with a new, more challenging market environment.
“A few of these corporate change efforts have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale. The lessons that can be drawn are interesting and will probably be relevant to even more organizations in the increasingly competitive business environment of the coming decade. The most general lesson to be learned from the more successful cases is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result” (“Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Harvard Business Review, January 2007).
Although Kotter then proceeds to delineate eight major mistakes companies make when attempting to implement change, the quote above clearly indicates that rushing things is the surest path to disaster. In fact, keeping this concept in mind helps us understand an enigmatic episode in this week’s Haftarah.The Torah commands us to free an eved Ivri after seven years. However, during the time of Tidkiyahu HaMelech, the Jews of Yerushalayim did not. Yirmiyahu HaNavi warns them of devastation and destruction that will befall them because of this sin.
The people take his words to heart and free their slaves. However, a short time later, with a crisis averted, they re-enslave those they had freed. In response, Yirmiyahu chastises them in the harshest of terms. The question is: Why did they so quickly revert to their evil ways?
Perhaps the answer is that they did not free their slaves as a result of an educational process where they had been slowly and patiently taught to realize their mistakes. Rather, they freed them because it seemed the better course of action at the time. They were facing a siege and probable military defeat and felt they needed the extra troops – and arguably the extra mitzvot to turn the tide. When they experienced victory relatively quickly they saw no reason not to re-enslave their former slaves. Their cultural understanding had not been transformed.
In contradistinction to the failure of Bnei Yisrael in the time of Yirmiyahu, the Torah presents us with a model of how to effect change in a sustainable way. Immediately before the Torah describes the laws and responsibilities associated with owning and freeing slaves, it states (21:1): “These are the statutes that you shall place before them.” Rashi, quoting Chazal, explains the intent of the words. Hashem was telling Moshe that he shouldn’t think he can teach Bnei Yisrael the laws two or three times and be satisfied. Rather, he must involve himself with the tedious work of ensuring that they understand the reasons and goals of the laws – so that they are as clear and attractive as food arranged on a set table. Hashem’s concern was that if Moshe did not explain the reasons over and over, Bnei Yisrael would fail to observe them properly.
The Torah’s directives on how to treat slaves was different from how other cultures of the time treated them. Bnei Yisrael’s own experience with slavery had been on the receiving end of such cruel treatment. Right or wrong, this cruel way of treating slaves was what Bnei Yisrael was culturally used to. Therefore, Moshe had to employ an intense education process to transform their cultural understanding of how to treat slaves.
Leaders who want to move their organizations forward to meet tomorrow’s challenges must implement change and be prepared to confront opposition to it. Only by understanding these challenges and being ready to slowly educate one’s followers to the need for change can there be success. No significant change can survive cultural rejection. Only by bearing this in mind will a leader be able to avoid the tragedies described in Sefer Yirmiyahu and enjoy the beautiful life and blessings promised in the Torah.