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Post #16 (VaEra) - "I'm not a speaker – Don't you see my 'wooden leg?'"

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” – John Wooden

But Moses said to God, “Please, O my lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” Exodus 4:10.

And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying: 'Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?' Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the Lord: 'Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?' Exodus 6:30

Moses really did not want that assignment! At the burning bush, Moses had already expressed his reluctance to assume the role of God's agent in Egypt, stressing that he has always been a person "slow of speech and slow of tongue.”[1] This contention did not deter God from sending him to Egypt. Moses's reluctance even seemed to anger Him. After confronting the Israelites and Pharaoh, so far with nothing to show for it, Moses encounters God again, returning twice more to his impediment of having “uncircumcised lips.”

The medieval commentator Rashi (1040–1105) understood Moses’s handicap as having ‘sealed’ or ‘closed’ lips, in the sense that Moses’ words didn't flow freely from his mouth. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) viewed "slow of speech and of a slow tongue" as a physical speech impediment and "uncircumcised lips" as lacking eloquence or as being insufficiently articulate and persuasive.[2] God may have deliberately sought a person like Moses to be His representative so that when the objectives in Egypt were achieved, it would not be attributed to Moses's charisma and slick persuasive powers but solely to God's intervention.

Nonetheless, Moses consistently focused on his speech impediments as disqualifying him for the mission, seemingly attributing his failure to this trait but perhaps ignoring other reasons for his lack of success or other qualities that he may not have applied. He may also have been overlooking the fact that success or failure was not dependent on him but on God. Upon first encountering God at the burning bush, God seemed to appease Moses by assuring him that his brother Aaron would serve as his spokesperson and, besides, not to count on Pharaoh to be convinced, no matter how Moses or Aaron speak. [3]

Once the Israelites are freed from Egypt, Moses's career will be full of opportunities to stand before his people and express himself orally, with no recorded hint of speech impediments or relying on a spokesperson. One need look no further than the bulk of the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses addresses the Israelites in lengthy orations, summarizing the Israelites' history as a nascent people and preparing them as they anticipate entering the Promised Land. Given Moses’s late-career oratory proficiency, we wonder whether his ‘speech handicap’ ever actually existed or whether he met his actual shortcomings with persistence and resilience, enabling him to overcome them.


"Wooden Leg" (Games People Play):

Transactional Analysis (TA) is a technique for analyzing social interaction. This school of thought was established by Eric Berne in the 1960s and was popularized by his book, Games People Play [4], and by Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK. [5] A "game" is a habitual behavior that has unwritten rules. It is performed by individuals to elicit specific anticipated responses from their communication partners, a kind of 'script' that obligates at least one party to maintain their role. Example: Upon encountering a work colleague in the hallway who has been away for a week, one is expected to greet them with more than the perfunctory “Hey, how are you doing?” The routine greeting needs to be upgraded and expanded to at least a "Hey, nice to see you back! How was your vacation?" An 'infraction' of this rule would cause discomfort and perhaps offense.

One of the better-known TA games is "Wooden Leg," a metaphor for whatever the individual habitually uses to justify not taking action or responsibility for whatever reason (too short, too old, no computer skills, fat genes, stutterer, can't get to work that early). In this game, a person who prefers, for example, to maintain a low profile may settle on some kind of "excuse card" to be pulled out when facing an unwanted challenge or when confronted with failure, as in, "What do you expect from someone with a wooden leg?" In Moses's case, he repeatedly highlighted his speech difficulties as precluding him from accepting God’s assignment and later as the reason for his lack of success, even when all of Pharaoh's rejections were staged by God and were unrelated to his (Moses’s) direct input.

At work, a person who wants to lay low, keep out of trouble, and avoid failure may adopt this ploy, perhaps even unintentionally. This individual may be approached for an assignment and respond by saying, "This is not for me; I can't _________ (spell, type, negotiate, speak in public, or ‘that’s above my pay grade’)." While it is critical for any worker to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, a person so inclined will typically adopt a favorite handicap to be trotted out when needed rather than modifying the excuse on each occasion. This "excuse" may be uttered as a candid self-reflection maintained by the ploy of achieving its objective—the task gets assigned to someone else. Some individuals may even apply this knee-jerk reaction without periodically examining themselves: Perhaps what may once have been a handicap is no longer insurmountable, or perhaps the real impediment could be resolved with some determination or even minimal effort.

An employee playing the "wooden leg" game can achieve short-term gains by reducing the pressure to perform, perhaps feeding into the individual's perfectionist inclinations ("You know I'm a perfectionist. No way I can get this back to you by Wednesday!"). However, this tack is likely to backfire by branding oneself to colleagues and management as a less-than-indispensable member of the organization. Employers can encourage unambitious employees by reinforcing actual achievements, both large and small. Setting up diverse teams can help each team member function well in their niche, with all contributing to the common goal. Organizational rewards for workers who act beyond the call of duty will help reinforce the organizational culture's values.

Points to Ponder:

  • You might be inclined to decline a boss’s challenging assignment because you’ve never done anything similar and fear failure. However, it’s best to hold off on your rejection until you've moved beyond the initial jolt and have thought realistically about what could (and could not) be accomplished (alone or with others). You received the assignment because the boss believed in you or because no one else was free. No matter; this is your opportunity to pitch in and expand your horizons. Discuss your hesitations with some colleagues and even with the boss. By talking it over, you may discover a path that taps into your proven skill set and allows you to contribute to the assignment.

  • Today's workforce is abundantly aware that job descriptions constantly change due to technological advances or organizational restructuring. There's no easy way out of this, leaving no room for the "wooden leg" strategy. Indeed, the 'wooden leg' strategy has been increasingly displaced by the more challenging "leaning in" strategy--and not just for women. Thus, in anticipation of challenging assignments, it would be best to find a way to neutralize this crutch by updating your skills and looking for opportunities to exercise them at work.

  • Try this: Enhancing your self-confidence will bring you many rewards. Among ways to bolster your confidence: Keep a log of compliments you have received from colleagues and clients (oral and written), maintain positive communication with colleagues near and distant, attend to your body language, practice good posture, and smile more often.

[1] Exodus 4:10.

[2] Up to 75% of the population is thought to suffer from glossophobia, sometimes known as a fear of public speaking.

[3] Exodus 7:13. [4] Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. Grove Press. [5] Harris, T. A. (1967). I’m OK–you’re OK. HarperCollins.


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