In two of my recent posts on the Obama Care crisis and Governor Christie’s “traffic-gate” I discussed how the leader and the culture he/she creates can lead to the failure of followers to behave in the most helpful ways, or more precisely, they may behave in ways that make the leader look incompetent or dishonest. In this post I would like to discuss the cultural root of obedience in the great church of our organizations and how we need to rethink the assumptions of loyal followership. Or to put it another way, a bit more disloyalty may be advantageous to the leader’s reputation and bank account.
We have often heard the advice that we should not discuss politics or religion in business and since I have already violated one I will now proceed to violate the other. The roots of our leadership and organization cultures are in our religious traditions. If you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, or raised in any country in which those traditions are dominant, you are culturally of the Abrahamic religious tradition. All three religions claim Abraham as the genetic and historic founder of their traditions. So, there must be something very important in the lessons to be learned from Abraham.
The story of obedience, or “faith” in the wisdom and strategy of the Supreme CEO, the Almighty, begins when the Lord speaks to Abraham, then in his 90’s, and informs him that he will be the “father of many nations.” (Genesis 17-5). The difficulty that Abraham has is that he has no children and his wife, Sarah, is only slightly younger than he. This was not part of his strategic plan. The Leader, like a good executive, is specific and tells Abraham that his child will be named Isaac and Sarah will bear him this child in one year.
Abraham falls on his face in laughter when he hears this news (17-17), as you may have when your leader announced strategies about which you were not consulted and which seemed overly ambitious. When Sarah overhears Abraham’s conversation with the Lord she also breaks out in laughter (18-13) and unfortunately, the Lord heard Sarah laughing and asked her “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” And, to this Sarah lies and denies that she laughed, but the Lord admonishes her and let’s her know that he did hear her laugh. Sarah, of course, set a precedent to be followed by a million subordinates since: When your boss overhears you laughing at something he said, regardless of how ridiculous, deny it!
Sarah, bless her heart, does give birth to Isaac in her 90’s, as foretold. And now it comes in Genesis 22 that Abraham’s faith, loyalty, and obedience will be tested.
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
There are a few points that should be noteworthy at this point in the story. It is clear that the Old Testament will not serve as a reference on gender equality in your HR manual. Abraham listens and obeys his Leader without consulting Sarah on a matter about which she might well have an opinion. Isaac is also her only begotten son and it is likely that Abraham’s intention to kill their son might be of interest to her. Certainly many husbands have failed to consult their wives on important matters since, and we can well point to Genesis 22 to justify our lack of consideration. And, in future generations a loving Father will again sacrifice His only begotten son without asking Mary, the mother, how she feels about this sacrifice.
Without attempting a feminist reading of this passage, it is worth noting that Sarah, as are other women, is referred to as “barren” or “fertile”, in other words, merely the soil in which a seed is planted. The nations, the Lord tells Abraham, will come from his seed without any reference to the seed or soil contributed by Sarah. I see the beginning of income inequality.
So, it is not surprising that Abraham has violated this consultant’s frequent advice that those who know, who care, or who must act, should be those consulted on decisions. Surely Sarah both knows and cares about the fate of her son Isaac, and perhaps she knows and cares about the sanity of her aging husband who wishes to go on a camping trip at the age of more than one hundred with their young son. It is tempting to imagine the conversation between Abraham and Sarah had he let her in on his plan to murder their son after hearing voices calling to him. I suspect most husbands would keep this to themselves.
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
Here we have another example to be followed for many generations. Abraham lies to his subordinate, Isaac, believing that he could not possibly understand the wisdom of his father’s deeds. Isaac, as a youth, has not yet been indoctrinated in the culture of bureaucratic obedience and might have his own opinion on the matter at hand. However, the leader, when asking someone to carry wood to their own fire, will tend to lie to the soon to become burnt offering rather than engage in attempting to convince them of their wisdom. It takes a lot of indoctrination in the ways of bureaucracy to accept the logic of carrying your own wood to the fire that will soon consume you, although many employees have done just that.
It should be noted that in the Muslim version of the story in the Qur’an, Abraham tells his son what is to happen: “My dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you. What do you think about that?” The son replies, “Father, do what is commanded of thee. God willing, he will find me among the steadfast.” One might judge that the Muslim version of the story portrays Abraham as decidedly more honest with Isaac, and Isaac as willing to submit to his own sacrifice. This could also be interpreted as a foundation for many future Muslim sacrifices or suicides in the name of Faith and a continuing failure to ask the simple question: “Why?” And, asking the question “why?” has been the foundation of all scientific progress where simple obedience has never lead to any great knowledge or commerce.
Back to the Genesis of the Old Testament:
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham! “Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
It may be significant that in the first instance the Lord speaks directly to Abraham instructing him to sacrifice Isaac. But, at the last moment and in the nick of time, the Lord sends an Angel, a sort of executive assistant, to deliver the message that the Lord changed his mind after witnessing Abraham’s obedience. It is a good thing that their messaging system was more efficient than most today, otherwise we would have lost a lot of seeds that have populated a lot of nations.
It is tempting to wonder whether Abraham ever invited Isaac to another camping trip and whether his son would have objected, perhaps claiming that he had already made plans with his friends. There is also no mention that Abraham or Isaac ever shared their adventure with Sarah. It is not hard to imagine the scene in which the father says to the son, what has been said so many times since: “Just don’t tell Mom!” Today the son would have tweeted his experience before they ever returned and Abraham would have faced the wrath of Sarah soon after entering their home.
And now, to the relevance of this story for today:
- In the case of the miracle in the land of New Jersey it is entirely possible that some Angel of the Lord thereof heard a voice command “Go forth and halt the traffic that passes to the land of New York over the bridge and test the people for four days by four hours each. And the Angel went forth and spoke to the keeper of the bridge who did obey the voice of the Angel.” And, it is possible that the Angel believed the voice she heard to be the voice of the Almighty Lord of New Jersey. It is also possible that this Lord was busy with other matters at the time and knew nothing of the work of the Angel. It is common in our land, that the subordinates, or should I say “Executive Angels,” often hear voices that are mistaken to be the voice of the Almighty.
- One might ask why the Angel did not ask the Lord “Why?’ One might also ask why the keeper of the bridge did not ask “Why?’ And, it would be reasonable for both to answer, as Abraham surely would have, “It is not for me to ask ‘Why?’ for I have faith and am obedient to the Lord of New Jersey and I surely expect to be rewarded for my obedience and faith as I have been taught.”
- And, it has come to pass that the Lord of New Jersey, rather than rewarding the executive Angel for her faith has instead called her “stupid” and a “liar” and clipped her wings.
- In the case of the miraculous dysfunction of the Healthcare website one can easily imagine that the many Angels of the Almighty of the White House heard the voice of the Lord who spoketh unto them and said “It shall be that the website shall be ready, and all in my domain the people shall be able to keep their beloved insurance policies.” And the Lord’s many Angels had faith and obedience in their Lord and objected not.
- One might ask why the many wonderful Angels of the land of the White House did not raise their voices in song and speaketh the truth that the website was not ready, nor that insurance policies could not remain the same. But, of course, we know the answer: they had faith and were obedient to their Lord.
And, in both cases we know that the faith and obedience of these subordinate angels did bring shame upon their Lord!
And now, let me query the reader’s own lord, prophet and angels the following:
- When in your own land of plenty has obedience and faith in the leader been used as a reason or true cause of failing to THINK, to ask WHY, and to trust in human reason?
- Why is it so that so many leaders prefer the obedience of Abraham to the questioning that is reason itself and have so often brought shame to their own Lord?
- And, in your own story, who is Sarah, the one who does the work, who contributes half of the seed and the soil that produces the fruit of the organization, yet who is denied information and who is denied a voice in the decisions that will affect her? And, why is it so?
- And, what do you teach your associates and followers as the ethic of followership, the standard to which they will be held, or do you assume that the Abrahamic tradition is all that they need know?