Save for life and death themselves, nothing has attracted more poetic attention than the enigma of dreaming. Shakespeare captures it in Prospero’s announcement, midway through The Tempest, that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.” “Our little life” is here today and gone tomorrow. But before our inevitable end, when we find ourselves “melted into air,” we have our dreams. Indeed, at our best, we are our dreams, for without them, we can aspire to nothing beyond a daily grind.
Dreams come in two varieties: fleeting nighttime fantasies that come upon us unawares and conscious projections, “visions,” of a time or situation we strive for. Dreams occur spontaneously, the stuff of fairy dust; visions materialize into life-changing projects. Dreamers are just dreamers; “visioners” are visionaries.
The Bible begins with a vision — by God: of a universe with light and dark, plants and animals, humans and history. God, we say, is omer v’oseh, the quintessential Being who speaks and acts. Davar lo yashuv reikam, “God’s word does not come back unfulfilled.” We cannot help but dream, but because we are made in the image of God, we can also strive to envision.
But to be a visionary whose visions make a difference, we require three things: the political savvy to get heard, the moral courage to speak truths, and the creative capacity to offer our visions as solutions.
We call that leadership.
By that standard, Joseph is a leader — but only eventually. His childhood dream of his brothers subserviently bowing down to him is mere wish fulfillment. It is no vision at all, much less a vision with an action plan. But relegated to an Egyptian prison, Joseph matures, and then along comes his chance: Pharaoh’s aides who are also in jail, with dreams of their own to interpret. Joseph plants the idea that when the cupbearer is restored to his former position, he might “think of me…and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh.”
The politicking works. The cupbearer comes through, and Joseph is summoned as a royal consultant.
Egypt suffered cyclical famines all the time; it took no great insight to see Pharaoh’s dream as a nightmarish fear of another such period of deprivation. That was not what Pharaoh wanted to hear, but Joseph said so anyway, thereby demonstrating the second step in leadership: telling truth to power. The third step followed: offering Pharaoh a visionary plan for countering the threat that the truth revealed. “Let Pharaoh find someone of discernment and wisdom to set over the land.”
Young man Joseph had become a brilliant tactician. From temporary consultant, he promoted himself to Pharaoh’s chief of staff.
No business school could devise a better model of leadership. Joseph politicks to get an audience with power (“Please recommend me to Pharaoh”). He tells harsh truths that no one else will acknowledge (“There will be a famine”). And he envisions a solution (“Put me in charge, and I will reorganize the treasury”).
People who jockey for position but tell no truths and have no visions are despised as mere politicians. Truth tellers without vision are dismissed as cranky naysayers. Visionaries without political knowhow are ignored as bothersome prophets. Leaders are all three: politicians, truth tellers, and visionaries. Joseph was a leader.
We need more Josephs. We have no lack of politicians, people who plan, plot, strategize, and even connive to get where they are, but then are loath to tell harsh truths, because without solutions, they risk being shot as messengers of bad news. We also have prophets whose lack of political savvy dooms them to being noisy but insignificant outsiders — bloggers, maybe, or writers of endless letters to the editor that never get published or, if published, never get read by anyone with power to act upon them.
What we need is a Joseph-like amalgam of them all, visionary leaders who achieve positions of authority, and who do not shrink from honesty, because they have powerful dreams that are not just imaginary but imaginative. These are the people who dream in league with God.