01/22/2015 10:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama Is a Modern Day Moses, Leading with the Paradoxical Commandments

Moses had a tough job -- a lot tougher than he realized when he took it on. He had to lead his people out of suffering under Pharaoh, into an unknown and difficult terrain toward the Promised Land.

Barack Obama has a tough job too -- a lot tougher than he realized when he took it on. He has had to lead his people out of suffering under economic devastation and horrific wars, onto the unknown and difficult road to hope and change.

Being a change leader is a tall order. People love the soaring rhetoric with which he outlines his vision of a better life. We trust that he has the right stuff to do the job. We want to believe that he'll deliver on his promises. And above all, we want him to be all things to all people -- all the time. We desperately seek a savior, and in electing Obama, we told him, "You're it! You're the guy who can get us out of this terrible state of affairs."

Our expectations are sky high. We expect our change leader to be Santa Claus, Superman, Daddy, and God -- all rolled into one. We expect him to have the wisdom of Solomon, the soul of Gandhi, the strength of Hercules, the compassion of Mother Teresa, and the enlightenment of Buddha. And Heaven help him if he turns out to be a mere mortal -- albeit a smart, talented, good-hearted mortal. Hell hath no fury like disappointed followers!

Moses had the same problem. When he wasn't able to transport his people to the Promised Land fast enough, they turned on him. "You're a terrible leader," they said. "We've been wandering in this desert for years and the Promised Land is nowhere in sight," they complained. "You don't know where you're going." "We should go back to Egypt," some proposed. "At least with Pharaoh we knew what to expect." They lost their faith and built a golden calf to worship instead.

Being a change leader is a thankless job. You pour your heart and soul into creating a better future for your people and what do they do? Whine and complain.

It's like driving across country with a back seat full of immature, impatient children who keep asking, "Are we there yet?" They have no understanding of the time it takes to get from one place to another. And just as children act out and make life miserable for the adult driving the car, so too do cranky, demanding, whining followers act out and make life miserable for their change leader. The followers have no patience, no perspective, and no appreciation for all that their leader is doing for them.

As part of his leadership duties, Moses was given the Ten Commandments to share with his people. Obama lives by the commandments of Moses, too, but he seems to lead by an additional set of commandments as well -- the commandments of a change leader, The Paradoxical Commandments*:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.

Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

Obama and Moses have something else in common as well -- neither of them made it to the Promised Land. As change leaders, their job was to shepherd their people through the desert, through the grueling process of change.

Moses had to get the people out of Egypt, and he also had to get Egypt out of the people. It took 40 years for their old habits, old mindsets, old beliefs and superstitions to dissipate. Moses had to destroy the golden calf that people were worshiping. An old generation literally had to die off before the people could reach the Promised Land.

It will probably take longer than 40 years for us to wander through our own desert of fear, arrogance, ignorance, intolerance, and selfishness. Obama has to destroy the golden calf of greed that is worshiped by the rich and powerful. An old generation may literally have to die off before we reach our Promised Land.

It didn't happen in Moses's lifetime and it won't happen in Obama's lifetime either. Nonetheless, Obama, like Moses, is carrying out the mission that God -- and the American people -- gave him to do. He is leading the charge for hope and change. He is showing us the way to the Promised Land.

*(The Paradoxical Commandments were written in 1968 by Kent Keith as part of a handbook for student leaders. 1968 Kent Keith; renewed 2001. Used with permission.)


BJ Gallagher is a sociologist and coauthor of the new 20th anniversary edition of "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins: A Fable About Creativity and Courage" (Berrett-Koehler), an international best-seller in 23 languages.