Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

The Weakness Of a Leader Who Is Too Strong

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 16, conclusion

Any way you slice it, Abraham was an extraordinary man.  He insulted the god/king to his face and wasn’t executed on the spot.  Whether it was by divine intervention as the stories tell, or because he was too powerful to kill, Abraham had it going on.

How did Abraham overcome a culture that was thousands of years old to form a new way  of thinking that today has over 4 billion followers?  In the words of Popvox CEO Marci Harris  “A dedicated team with shared vision can make amazing things happen, and still be standing long after others go home.”  Abraham’s vision had a strong element of putting people first, and the laws of God that he taught applied equally to all men, whether a king or a begger.  Abraham’s tent was open on four sides so anyone could come and talk with him, and he personally washed the feet of guests from the desert on the day he was circumcised at the age of 99.

While Abraham’s wealth, influence and followers increased over his lifetime, his story illustrates the weakness of the movement: it was hard. God was now an abstraction, unknowable and un-seeable.  It was harder for people to believe in the abstract God than it was to follow the multiple gods of the surrounding cultures, gods that everyone could touch and feel.

Early Judaism depended on single leaders to foster a group identity.  This did a great job of creating the religion, but it was hard to maintain in the long term.  Within a few generations of his death, the Abraham’s people, the Israelites fell back into idolatry.  This reminds me of descriptions in the book Good To Great of companies that achieved great results under a charismatic leader, but fell apart after the leader left.

What it took for the Israelites to get to the next level was a new leader, Moses the lawgiver, who brought written laws and “process,” to help create a way of life to support the values taught by Abraham.

And the same process holds for those of us trying to overcome corporate idolatry.  Each of us on our own can shift our identity to prioritize people over the company.  But for those changes to last, we need a community of like-minded people.

Who is your community?

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Life Lessons From Abraham: The CEO Of a Startup Religion

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 15

Abraham was raised in ancient Sumeria, a world where the dominant culture was pagan.  Gods were everywhere, from Anu the sky god, to regional gods, to small amulets and magic charms that were a big part of everyday life.  Abraham’s cause was not simply a matter of a single divinity- it was a completely different way of life. And if we look at the number of followers as a scorecard, I think he was onto something.  According to the Big Religion Comparison Chart, there are 14 Million Jews, 2 Billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet, all of whom look at Abraham as the father of monotheism.   For those of us looking to bust  our modern idols, there is a lot we can learn from Abraham.

For Abraham, monotheism was not an abstract, metaphysical question about the number of deities.  Abraham was the CEO of a start up religion, and he was looking to change the world.  He had an unshakable identity and powerful personality that attracted followers.  And like any good startup CEO, he could lay out a vision and make others believe.  By intellectual reasoning, Abraham showed that something created by man should not become the object of worship.  For Abraham, there was one creator who put forth rules of right and wrong that did not change.  This was very different than the pagan world, where right and wrong changed depending on the deity, and is also different than the corporate world, where right and wrong behavior is defined by corporate culture.

As I argued in Chapter 2, the universal values are The Golden Rule tempered by The Rule of Self Preservation.  In the next post, we’ll look at the limitations of Abraham’s identity-based approach to change.

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What Can We Learn About Layoffs From the Story Of Abraham In The Bible?

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity

In the last post, Janet solidified her identity as a people-first person (as opposed to a company-first person) only after she was laid off from her job.  The company culture was difficult, and put a high premium on putting the company first.  The story of Abraham in the Bible also starts with a journey.  Abraham leaves a society of idol worshippers, starting a journey into the wilderness. Abraham leaves at God’s command, which on the surface seems like very different circumstances than a layoff.  Hold that thought while we return to Abraham’s backstory, which is captured in the Talmud, a collection of stories and commentary that fills in the gaps in the Torah (aka the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament.)

I shared the Talmud story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop at the start of Chapter 2.  These clay statues played a central role in Sumarian life.  To challenge idolatry was to challenge a foundational element of the culture, and by extension the power of King Nimrod. When Abraham was brought to court to explain, he did not back away from his central message.  “If you are so wise, King Nimrod, why do you worship gods made by human hands, and why do you call yourself a god when one day you will die like all men made of flesh and blood?”[i]  (You can read the whole story here.)

Nimrod proceeds to jail Abraham for a year without food and water, and then to throw him into a fiery furnace, both of which Abraham survived through divine intervention.  Let’s for the sake of argument, say that this is an allegory and not literally true.  How then, did Abraham survive, in an era thousands of years ago when the rule of the king was absolute, and “dead bodies floated along the Euphrates.?”[ii]  In my opinion, it is because Abraham was teaching a set of values that gained a following.  Rather than create a martyr, maybe Nimrod sent Abraham and his followers into exile.  It was only later reported that Abraham left of his own accord, to  “spend more time with his family.”

What does this say about Abraham’s identity?

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[i] The Classic Tales: 4000 Years of Jewish Lore by Ellen Frankel. Jason Aronson Inc (1993) P 54-56.

[ii] The Gifts Of The Jews by Thomas Cahill Anchor Books (1998) p. 93

Why Your Identity Matters To Work-Life Balance

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 13

In the last post, “Janet Wolf” described how her identity was wrapped up in the company, and how a layoff allowed her to realize that “she was above all that.”  What does it mean to have an identity wrapped up in the company?

Stanford Business School professor James G. March describes identity as an expected set of behaviors that apply in certain social situations. Put another way, identity is an automatic pilot that guides behavior without the need to stop and think what to do in a given situation.  An identity is reinforced by the social context, that rewards “behavior consistent with the definition of the identity and penalizing behavior inconsistent with behavior.”[i]

For example, a parent identity is reinforced by parenting-related activities, such as the appreciative smile that comes from going to the soccer game.  An identity that comes from the company is reinforced daily by the interactions, both positive and negative, that happen at work.  Some companies, like Google, go to great lengths to strengthen the identity of employees from the time of hire. (See this post on Nooglers.)

As I wrote earlier in the chapter, we all have multiple identities that apply in different situations.  Corporate idolatry arises when the company-first identity becomes dominant.  In the year I went from working 90 hours a week to 60 hours a week, I was in a virtuous cycle – the more time I spent at home, the more my parent/husband/friend identities became stronger, which in turn made it easier to work even less.

For Janet, her change in identity was catalyzed by a change in environment.  It was only when she was out of the workplace that she her non-work identity re-asserted itself.  In the next post, I will explore this dynamic further, and will return to the story of Abraham that was started in Chapter 2.

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[i] Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen by James G. March Free Press. (1994) p 64-65

The Network: Insurance Against a Layoff

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 12 

In the last post, we met Janet Wolf, the power mom who set clear expectations with her managers that she would have time contraints and would always get her work done.  And she remained connected to her kids activities while consistently getting to do “bigger and better things” in her career.

Janet is a Wolf, someone who is concerned with both the success of the organization and the welfare of the people she works with. (see this post from Chapter 4 for more on Wolves.)  And like Harry Lobo, she found herself in a difficult political environment.  Janet described it as “ten smart guys at the top” who seemed to think that everyone else was “dispensable.”

Janet’s last manager at that company had “no desire to spend any time on talent management.  [His attitude was] ‘Get it done or else you suck and get out of here.’”  This was difficult for Janet, because her values put her priorities in a different place.  Janet thought that developing people was the key to successful long term success of the company.  And her network, both professional and personal, was huge, which was critically important after an unexpected layoff after five years.  Janet’s comments, which she shared with me a month after the layoff, illustrate how her identity quickly shifted.

“These people don’t value me, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not valued.  Your identity is so tied up with a company and a role but then you realize that you are above all that.  It doesn’t matter that you may or may not be affiliated with a company right now.  It’s been an interesting awakening for me, to realize that.  I’ll be ok.  Yes, I do want to do something exciting next but its ok if it takes a while.  It took a week for me to come to [figure this out].  I got so many calls and emails from friends.”

And given the size of her network, it didn’t surprise me that Janet soon had another position that she described to me as her “dream job.”

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