How to Discern a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: 3 Leadership Tips

Have you ever noticed that things are not as they seem? The deeper context of some recent volatile situations brings to mind the powerful image in the age-old statement about the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It came to me again this morning as I was doing a weekly reading in Essays on Ethics by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.[i] In a short five-page essay, he noted five stories from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in which clothing was used to deceive others. Here are these scandalous instances –

  1. Jacob dresses in his brother Esau’s clothing to deceive his father and receive the birthright blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother.
  2. Joseph’s coat of many colors was used by his brothers to deceive their father Jacob.
  3. Tamar took off her widow’s clothing and covered her face with lace (dressed as a prostitute) to deceive and seduce Judah so she would not be childless.
  4. Joseph’s robe was used by Potiphar’s wife to get revenge for his refusal to sleep with her.
  5. Joseph’s powerful uniform as the Viceroy of Egypt deceived his brothers who never expected to see him in such an important role.

Complex Emotional Issues Abound

So, what does this all have to do with being an honorable leader today? Recent challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide upheavals surrounding race have revealed some critical issues that need to be discussed and acted upon. As expected, there’s some powerful messaging coming from many very diverging sides of these two issues. Consider this short list of angles/positions for COVID-19 that include public health concerns, personal freedoms, and need for a viable economy.

Now the complex perspectives on race relations seem to have overwhelmed the impact of the ongoing pandemic. As I indicated in last month’s blog, intentional dialogue by white people engaging our black friends and colleagues with active and empathetic listening is crucial to resolve racial issues.

And to add even more complexity, it’s an election year, so there’s the desire and motivation to use both issues for political power and influence.

Watch my short 3-minute Leading with Honor Coaching Clip, and react and comment –

(If the video does not play, click to watch here.)


Deception Rolls In

But guess what–amid the progress and good messages coming forth on both national issues, deceptive wolves are licking their chops. They are spreading messages intended to exploit our legitimate feelings and deceive the original messengers’ true intentions. Their emotionally positioned words and actions—whether it’s manipulating COVID data or hiding behind peace-loving, genuine protesters—are the modern-day sheep’s clothing.

“There is some truth in every angle, but not all the groups in our national conversations are driven by pure motivations. So, it’s more important than ever for honorable leaders to be very discerning.” [Tweet This]

Many people are distorting real issues to lead good people and naïve leaders into the influence of the pack where they will have to join in and act like a wolf or be eaten alive.

Experience with Deception in the Camps

Discernment was a constant battle during my years as a Vietnam POW. Every cell had a speaker that blasted misleading messages three times daily. With a steady diet of communist propaganda, we had to search for the kernels of truth in any message, but also learn to discern the motivation of the messengers.

“Communism’s self-serving and deceptive message usually contained pieces of truth, but it was interwoven with highly emotional lies to deceive and energize the listener, thus advancing their ideology.” [Tweet This]

Their allegiance was to the party line, not to real truth. In fact, one of the interrogators told us that “truth is that which most benefits the party.” Sound familiar?

Three Ways to Influence Culture

How should honorable leaders respond today? Here are three ways we can influence our culture toward a peaceful transition into a healthier future.

  1. Listen carefully. Be open to hear and learn the truth underneath the messages that are forthcoming.
  2. Be discerning. Do your research to determine the whole truth and the motivation of the messengers. Is it pure and aligned with truth, freedom and justice for everyone? Or, is it more about a political message or a power grab by those advocating a destructive ideology?
  3. Use your influence wisely. Consider your opportunity as a leader and citizen to promote and support messages, groups, and organizations that seek truth, justice, wisdom, and collaboration.

Working Together

Ultimately, we must believe that we can get through these current challenges. I often rely on the The Stockdale Paradox by Jim Collins[ii] which basically says, we should never give up hope in a successful outcome, but we must be disciplined to confront the brutal realities of our current situation.

I’m challenging myself and you the reader to intentionally seek the truth, expose the wolves, collaborate with our well-meaning opponents, and guide our nation toward a higher level of justice and freedom.


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14 Principles for Better Leadership Discernment

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[i] Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible. Rabbi Sacks is a famous author and speaker—see his prior book, Lessons in Leadership, and his latest book comes out September 1st, 2020, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.

[ii]   Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, James C. Collins, pp. 86-88


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