Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

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

Three Aspects Of Corporations That Will Surprise You

The Corporation: The Real American Idol. Chapter 3 Part 1

Is a thunderstorm evil?  You might think it is if you don’t understand how it works.  The noise, the lighting, the destructive power can be frightening and dangerous.  Is a thunderstorm good?  You might think so, given the life-giving rain.  When faced with the unknown, the mind naturally creates a story to explain what is happening.  And when we don’t have all of the information, our imagination fills in the blanks. Of course a thunderstorm is neither good nor evil, it just is.

And so it goes with corporations, they are neither good nor evil.   A corporation can do “good” things like donating money to flood victims, or “bad” things like polluting a river.  But good and bad are labels added by people, and are not drivers of the company decisions.  For example, the oil company Texaco donated money for 63 years to allow radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera (a good thing), but the sponsorship started to help repair its reputation that damaged by its support for Nazi Germany (a bad thing)[1].

So what is a corporation?

In the words of Chief Justice Marshall of the United States Supreme court, “a corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of the law.[2]”  It is striking to me how this definition of the corporation resembles following definition of a pagan idol.

Reverend Carlton Wynne of the Westminster Theological Seminary writes that idols in the Bible have personhood, are thought to have power, and have the ability to both accept sacrifices and bless supplicants[3].  Corporations meet all three of these criteria, except of course that corporations actually do have power.  And as for the third criteria, employees regularly make sacrifices for the company, and receive bonuses, promotions, and recognition as rewards.

Of course the primary definition of idolatry that I gave has to do with the adoption of a relative value system.  Do you think this definition fits corporations as well?

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[1] Corporate Social Strategy: Stakeholder Engagement and Competitive Advantage

By Bryan W. Husted, David Bruce Allen Cambridge University Press (2010)  p 141-142.  Google eBook.

[2] Dartmouth College v. Woodward, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporation Retrieved July 29, 2012

[3]   Is Idolatry the New Sin? By Carlton Wynne Reformation 21.org  November 2009.  http://www.reformation21.org/articles/is-idolatry-the-new-sin.php Retrieved most recently July 29, 2012

Is the Sacrifice Of Family Time For Work Idolatry?

Moloch Was Worshiped by Burning Children Alive

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then and Now Part 1

Each Chapter begins with a personal story from my life to set the tone.  Here is the story for Chapter 2.

Until a few years ago, the last I had thought about idolatry was in Sunday school when I heard the story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.  As a precocious, independent-minded boy in grade school, I loved a story that combined sticking it to your dad with smashing things. On a deeper level, I was very impressed with Abraham’s cleverness.  He found a simple way to reveal a deeper truth about the world that his father was unable to deny. 

A common question I get goes something like this “Dude, idolawhat?  I’m trying to get my life together, don’t go to church, and you are dropping the Old Testament on me.

Ok, I hear you.  If you want to go on vacation for a few weeks and come back after I’ve covered the section on Idolatry, I won’t hold it against you.  But, you may be surprised at how strongly the age-old conflict against idolatry resonates today.

The term idolatry is both loaded and complex.  In fact, some people have told me that the term “idolatry” has too much religious baggage, and is something they are uncomfortable having associated with their work life.  I understand that too.  The word idolatry does carry judgmental and religious connotations, and rightly so as it was first introduced to the world to contrast the first monotheistic religion with the polytheistic practices of the time.

Let me be clear that I am referring to polytheism as it was practiced in the ancient world, and not to modern day pagan or polytheistic religions.  In ancient civilizations like Canaan, Babylon and Greece, people worshipped multiple gods via statues know as idols.  And much of it was barbaric – the most egregious of which was child sacrifice to Moloch.

Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt, when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved. [1. Rashi commenting on Jeremiah 7:31]

Over time, the view of idolatry has changed from statue worship to human behavior.  For example, The thirteenth century Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri wrote that idolatry is characterized by a lawless and amoral lifestyle, and not by number of gods or issues of theological doctrine per se[i].

I have come to believe that idolatry is the adoption of a value system that conflicts with certain universal, people-first values.  Over the course of this chapter, I will explain why I believe this, through stories and a sampling of philosophical thought from the last few thousand years.  This definition steps outside the bounds of religious doctrine, and into the realm of human behavior and psychology.  Since the days of the clay statues, idolatry keeps coming back in new forms, because it is something that grows out of the human heart.

Corporate Idolatry is the adoption of a value system that prioritizes the company over the people in your life.  Have you ever made a personal sacrifice for the company, a sacrifice that came at the expense of  your family?

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[i] Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press.  P. 212.

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Ozzie Guillen, Free Speech, and Corporate Values

Baseball Cropped from Image:Baseball.jpg by Tage Olsin under Creative Commons License

Baseball Idol - see note for attribution info

Miami Marlins  manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended five games by the team for making the comment that he “loves Fidel Castro”  in a Time Magazine interview.  Guillen apologized in a tearful press conference, explaining that what he mean was that he admired the way Castro has stayed in power despite the fact that he is hated by much of Cuba’s population.

What amazes me is the number of people who feel that Guillen was exercising his Constitutional Right to Free Speech, and therefore the Marlins have no right to discipline him.

Excuse me?  There is no constitutional right to work for a particular employer, and there is no prohibition against a private employer suspending or firing an employee for something they say.

Working for a company is a tacit agreement to follow the company’s values, whatever they may be.  Ozzie Guillen works for a company whose customers hate Castro, and therefore praising Castro goes against Marlin’s values.  I am not going to weigh in on whether Guillen should have said what he did.  But the Marlins are a business, and they suspended him to show their customers that “The pain and suffering caused by Fidel Castro cannot be minimized.”  Part of adopting company values is accepting the rewards and punishments that come with that value system.

I am reminded of something a CEO told me about running a company.   ”Your life is not your own. You are driven by being a lot of things  that are broader, about marketing the company to the financial community.”  Guillen in many ways like the CEO of the Marlins.  He is the public face of the organization.  He is paid millions of dollars by the team, and for that money he forfeits his right to speak in public in a way that the company doesn’t like.  What applies to Guillen applies to executives and employees throughout the corporate world.

In fact, I think I once lost a job because I called out someone powerful in a meeting.  To be honest, I didn’t really mind being let go, and I understood that I was putting my job on the line when I spoke up.  Whether this was right or wrong of the company is immaterial.  (And I should say that I have no direct evidence that this is why I was included in the next RIF.)  A company is most effective when everyone is on the same page, and it could be argued that someone who publicly dissents from the leadership should be let go because they are taking away from the common purpose.  I know there are a lot of Harvard Business Review articles saying that stifling dissent is a bad business strategy, and I agree.  Nevertheless, retaliation for speaking out is reality that employees  deal with every day.

Different companies have different tolerances for criticism of the company officers.   But few if any companies will tollerate an employee who speaks or acts in a way that is harmful to the company bottom line.  Ozzie Guillen’s suspension is a great example of the arbitrariness of company values.  Guillen made similar comments about admiring Castro two years ago when he was manager of the Chicago White Sox.  Admiring Castro does not conflict with White Sox values because few White Sox fans really care about Castro.  But publicly admiring Castro does conflict with Marlins values, because Marlins fans care a lot.

I suspect that if Ozzie Guillen paid more attention to people-first values,  he would have been more sensitive to the feelings of the Cuban-American community about Castro.  Plus, someone with strong people-first values would not admire a dictator for his ability to stay in power.  Some people around the world admire Castro for providing universal health care and a good education to his people.  But admire him for staying in power?  C’mon Man!