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Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Quality Insider

Leadership, Corinthians style

Organizational Excellence From the Bible

Published: Monday, November 13, 2006 - 23:00

Following last month’s excellent article "Management and the Bhagavad-Gita" by M. P. Bhattathiri, Quality Digest got several requests for an article discussing how the Christian bible might also be used in an organizational context. In the following, Quality Digest editor in chief, Dirk Dusharme, applies the writings of the apostle Paul to a very common organizational issue.

It’s not difficult, or mysterious really, to apply any great writing to an organization. In most cases, all it takes is a little understanding of the context in which the writer was living and looking for the similarities in today’s world. Last month, M. P. Bhattathiri gave a description of how some of the wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gitacould be applied in a management context.

In this article, I’ll take a broad look at how all employees can gain from the apostle Paul’s no-nonsense approach to organizational issues. As my source, I’ll use one of Paul’s most famous passages from the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians.

A little history
At the time that the apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, roughly 50 A.D., the Christian church in Corinth was experiencing growing pains. There were factions based on which Christian leader people wanted to follow. There were divisions based on the importance of various spiritual gifts (let’s call them "skill sets")—some in the church felt they were better than others, because they had certain gifts that others didn’t have. The gift of prophesy might have been considered more important, for instance, than the gift of teaching. These, coupled with moral and administrative issues, were wreaking havoc within the early church.

When Paul, the most authoritative leader of the early church and living in Ephesus at the time, was apprised of the situation, he wrote a none-too-subtle letter to the church in Corinth. The letter is as relevant today as it was then. For instance, what organization hasn’t seen unethical behavior, factions grow around particular leaders, or interdepartmental snubbing based on the perceived importance of one department over another?

Let’s take a look at this last one and how Paul dealt with it. The problem with early Christians favoring those with certain spiritual gifts over others is analogous to how some organizations appear to give more importance to research and development, marketing or engineering, let’s say, than to production or shipping. How often have you felt that your department or function wasn’t considered as important as another? "Hey, money is tight, let’s lay off some of those guys in the quality department. They’re a pain in the rear, anyway."

In dealing with the Corinthian church, Paul was having none of that. His argument, starting in 1 Corinthians 12:12, addresses the issues of organizational unity and diversity:

"The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body…. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?... The eye cannot say to the hand, ’I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ’I don’t need you!’

Paul finishes this passage with verse 26: "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it."

Wouldn’t it be great if our organizations truly functioned that way, where every part of the organization was treated with equal importance? It’s not that hard to draw the connection between what Paul is saying and how your organization works, is it? What good is R&D if there is no one to build the product, what good is production if you can’t ship it? What good is engineering if you don’t have people or processes to ensure the product is built to spec? Further, when a product doesn’t work, sales plummet and we all suffer. When we work together and ship excellent product, customers are happy, spend lots of money, and we all rejoice and run out to spend our profit-sharing checks.

OK, you probably buy into this, at least a bit. But how do you get there? How do you get everyone to accept that we’re all in the same boat? Well, as Paul says in the last line of Chapter 12: "And now I will show you the most excellent way."

1 Corinthians 13
If you’ve been to a wedding, even a non-Christian wedding, you have most likely heard the words from the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, verses 1 through 13. It’s the famous chapter on love. Here, despite how it’s used in weddings, Paul is still admonishing those who elevate themselves above others because of their gifts. He has described, as we have seen, how wrong that idea is. He continues, in chapter 13:1 to point out that "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels [one of the gifts in question], but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol," (clanging-symbol–like managers take note). Or, for engineers: "If I… can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge… but have not love, I am nothing."

How do you get the organization to work as one unit? According to Paul: love. He isn’t talking about romantic love here, or saying that we all need a big group hug. We have one English word for love, the Greeks have several. In this case, Paul uses the Greek word agape, which was understood in the early church as meaning a selfless concern for others, even if it isn’t deserved—a very one-sided giving without expecting anything back kind of love that has nothing to do with the touchy feely, creepy when it’s in the work place, kind of thing.

What does that kind of love look like? Paul outlines it right here in 1 Corinthians 13:
1 Corinthians 13:4—Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud

Substitute "a manager" or "an employee" for "love" and you’ve got a rock-solid basis for leadership. Neither managers nor teams can survive without patience or kindness. And boastfulness or unreasoning pride in your own ideas or accomplishments is the kiss of death for any collaborative effort. Without a willingness to take a deep breath and listen, and a willingness to accept that someone may have a better idea than you (as impossible as that sounds) you will stifle innovation and cooperation.

1 Corinthians 13:5—It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrongs.

I like that last bit. It’s not that a manager isn’t supposed to track bad behavior or bad performance (there are legal reasons why you must), but you can’t hold that record over someone’s head like an anvil. Let’s face it. We all screw up sometimes. We all make bad decisions, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of stubbornness or anger. Throwing past screw-ups in someone’s face isn’t going to make them perform better, most likely the contrary.

In practical terms, this means that your attitude toward that person has to start fresh each time following a mistake—a clean slate, as if the problem hadn’t occurred. So how do you deal with a person who makes mistakes? I think every employee, whether manager or production worker, should memorize the following concept.

1 Corinthians 13: 6—Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

To paraphrase: do not delight in the screw-ups of others. Your job isn’t to look for errors so that you have something to hold over an employee or coworker. We all know that’s a tough job. It’s much easier to hold negative thoughts and a ledger sheet of wrongs than it is to let go of them. Regardless, whenever possible, your job is to help one another do a better job, whether employee or coworker; to hope and trust in them; and to persevere in that endeavor. If you’re a manager and your employees make mistakes, you find out why. You hope and trust it wasn’t deliberate, unless proven otherwise, and you protect them from backlash. And you do that because, ultimately, their performance is largely due to the type of manager you are. It’s part of your job as a manager to stand up for your employees.

Paul finishes chapter 13 with this:
1 Corinthians 13: 13—And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Paul stresses that the only way the early church—and by extension an organization—is going to survive, is to practice mutual respect for each other—no backstabbing, no unreasonable pride. If each part of the organization understands its function in relation to others and sees itself as a necessary part of the whole, the organization can thrive. By the way, this isn’t just management’s job. Paul didn’t address his letter to church leaders. His letter was to the entire church. In other words, giving isn’t just management’s job, it’s the job of every employee in the organization.

This is just one example of applying biblical principles to the work place. What I did here with the Bible, others of other faiths can easily do with their own scriptures. The nonreligious can do it with books or ideas that have moral or ethical meaning for them. The important point is that we all bring our own particular spiritual and moral values to the work place. Rather than leave those ideas at the mosque, church, sangha, temple or synagogue, pull those books out from under your stack of Nordstrom’s catalogs and copies of Oprah, dust them off, and read them looking for what the authors intended—not as pieces of history to be memorized and recited when asked, but living, breathing instructions on how to put feet to your faith. Your workplace will prosper.


About The Author

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest’s picture

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest’s editor in chief.