Avraham, the master innovator, shows us how to inspire people to change, and how to use business as a vehicle for this inspiration.
Only if you truly inspire others (your children, employees, students or strangers) might you genuinely change their behaviors, attitudes or assumptions. Merely challenging them to change or even incentivizing them to change just intimidates them and doesn't cut it, nor does appeasing them with love and connection. In the work environment 84% of employees (globally) feel coerced because they are managed with the fear of consequence (positive or negative). In the field of education, in the USA at least, we seem to be appeasing students, leaving them feeling unchallenged. Only 4% of employees feel inspired and hardly any students do. The difficulty with inspiring people is not only that one must oneself be inspired but also that one must connect with people and challenge them simultaneously.
Avraham, the master innovator, shows us how to inspire people to change, and how to use business as a vehicle for this inspiration. He shows us how to construct relationships that are not just exercises in appeasement, but also opportunities for meaningful confrontation and growth. He shows us how to confront people without triggering them into defensiveness, inspiring them to change their lives.
The key to inspiration is the ability when relating to people, to synthesize authentic connection with honest confrontation. TheMidrash says (Bereishis Rabba 54:3):
"Confrontation leads to love…love without confrontation is not love.
Confrontation leads to peace…peace without confrontation is not peace."
Avraham and Avimelech king of the Pelishtim, have a fascinating interaction at the end of Bereishis Chapter 21. In this interaction Avraham confronts Avimelech about a well that Avimelach's servants stole from Avraham. Avimelech reacts in a non-defensive way, explaining that he had no prior knowledge of this theft and points out that Avraham had never raised this with him before. Why, in fact did Avraham not raise this sooner and why does he choose this moment to do so?
The passage opens with Avimelech and Pichol his General, approaching Avraham and declaring their acknowledgement that Hashem supports Avraham in everything he does. Recognizing Avraham's power, Avimelech entreats Avraham to swear that he will reciprocate his kindness to him - not only to himself but also to future generations of the Avimelech family. Avraham, without hesitation, agrees to swear. However, before he actually swears he rebukes Avimelech about the well. Avraham has not rebuked Avimelech before because they did not have a personal connection deep enough to allow their relationship to survive the rebuke. Avraham first assures Avimelech that their relationship is secure, that he is grateful for Avimelech's kindness and that he, Avraham, and his descendants, will reciprocate Avimelech's kindness. With their relationship secure, Avraham then proceeds to rebuke him. He challenges and confronts Avimelech only after he has solidly connected with him.
After the rebuke Avraham reverts to their relationship. As a symbol of both their new business understanding and their personal connection he presents Avimelech with gifts that include seven sheep. The presentation synthesizes a gift (relationship) and a kinyan (the resolution of their confrontation by means of a contractual recognition of Avraham's ownership of the well). Seven is significant because the Hebrew word for seven, sheva, is also the root of the word shevua - the oath they took to end their business confrontation. (See Ibn Ezra 21:30) So significant is this word sheva, that Avraham called the place at which the oath was made, Be'er Sheva, or as Targum Yonassan translates it, The Well of the Seven Sheep.
I taught Avraham's method of connecting personally with a counterpart before challenging them, to a large gathering of executives at one of my clients in the defense industry last week. I got the following email from Steve, one of the participants:
"I was very impressed with the talk. As a matter of fact, I tried a different approach in an employee engagement meeting I had. I periodically have lunch with a selection of employees who are not direct reports to me. Instead of my typical approach, I spent the whole time focused on them, their lives and their passions. All of the conversations eventually included their experiences on the program. By the end of the lunch, I had communicated every message I had wanted to send, and I also learned a lot about them as individuals. At the end, I had a unique experience - several of the employees wanted to go to my office to see pictures of my children. What has typically been a business event, successfully bridged across all four pillars and became much more meaningful. I gained greater insight and still completed the objectives of the "activity" in the same allotted time."
Avraham was not only a businessman and statesman, he was also a rabbi and spiritual leader. He used the same methodology in his religious teaching as he used in his negotiation with Avimelech. At the end of the passage we are told that Avraham planted an Eshel inBe'er Sheva. Simply Eshel is a type of tree, but the word also implies (by re-ordering its letters, a legitimate form of derash,) request. R. Nechemia (Bereishis Rabba 44:6) takes this to mean that Avraham established a full-service restaurant at which he could fulfill anyrequest of travelers in the area for nourishment. R. Azaria says it was a Sanhedrin, a place of learning, teaching and resolution of moral and halachik questions. The word request, according to R. Azaria, refers to requests for moral and intellectual clarity. Reish Lakkish in the Gemarra (Sotah 10b) combines these views:
After they had eaten and drunk, they would get up to thank Avraham. He would say to them, "Did you really eat and drink from what belongs to me? You ate and drank from what belongs to the Lord of the universe!" They would then praise, thank and bless He who with a word, created the universe.
The Targum Yerushalmi adds (21:33):
…and they did not leave their places (in the restaurant) until Avraham had converted them to monotheism, and taught them the natural laws of the universe…
Again we see the lengths to which Avraham went by building a not-for-profit restaurant so as first to connect humanly to people by means of chessed. Only then would he challenge their paradigms of thought and belief.
Business: A vehicle for Kidush Hashem
Avraham set up the Torah's business model. Here are some of its features:
- A business is service-centered. It is intended to fill the needs of others, and this should be its focus.
- Any individual who is offering a service to another or to others, whether or not for payment, is in business.
- A business should fulfill not only people's tangible needs but also their intangible needs. (In Avraham's case the intangible need was moral and intellectual clarity).
- The intangible need that each business satisfies should align with the Life Purpose of the individual(s) who own(s) the business and those who work in it.
- Success, in whatever "currency" it is designed to be measured, is an outcome of serving the customer effectively. Success is never the higher purpose of a business, fulfilling human needs and changing people's lives is the Purpose of business. (In Avraham's case his measure of success was the number and quality of conversions to monotheism.)
I have dedicated the last twenty years of my work life to teaching business leaders in multiple industries and countries, how to refocus their organizations to this Abrahamic philosophy. Astonishingly, or perhaps not so astonishingly, not only have they and their employees felt significantly more inspired and found higher purpose in their work, but their business results have also grown exponentially. This week I received the following comment in an email:
I heard from a friend of mine that the leadership program you structured for XXX Bank is very exciting. He commented that it is astonishingly brave and ground-breaking.
Business, our professions and our work is an important part of our lives. Avraham teaches that its capacity to impact people far beyond the tangible product we offer is immense. It is one of the most powerful vehicles we have for Kidush Sheim Shamayim, and for being mekareiv leiv haberi'os le'avihem shebashamayim.