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Biblical wisdom for the business leader

Dec 21, 2009 Business Daily, Leadership

“All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers came, thither they return again. All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

The Holy Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:7-9)

In the season of goodwill, perhaps we can turn to words of a more spiritual nature as we seek inspiration.

The Bible is the world’s bestselling book, but it is not often viewed as a literary work. The Book of Ecclesiastes, however, is a work brimming with poetically depicted truths. “All is vanity” is its central thesis: all is nothing; nothing means anything. We toil and struggle to achieve our earthly goals, but like the river, we must return to our source. We preoccupy ourselves obsessively with feeding our senses, but are our eyes, ears and tongues ever satisfied?

We imagine that our modern world of television, internet and smartphones is unique: but, as Ecclesiastes points out, there is nothing new under the sun. What has been will be again; what was done will be done again. We merely repeat the same cycles of behaviour that were there at the time of the Old Testament. The human condition remains the same; only the packaging changes. Without a higher purpose to our lives, all is indeed nothing.

In the world of management, similarly, we imagine we are at the cutting edge: that the modern world is full of fresh and modern thinking about business and managerial practice. Think again! In the business world, too, there is nothing new under the sun.

The central aim of business is still the same it has ever been: to sell something at a profit. And the way in which to do this well is also the same: by creating a unique product or service, and by motivating employees to sell it to customers and in the process create an enduring bond of goodwill with them. Those who can do that well prospered in the time of Noah’s Ark; and they prosper equally in the time of the worldwide web.

Every generation thinks what it is experiencing is fresh and new. The Bible reminds us that things have always been thus. All that change are the language and the tools we use.

Let that be a sobering thought for us as we ponder the direction of our organisations in 2010. There is no rocket science involved in leadership, in strategy, in management. So be wary of those who come bearing gifts of “breakthrough thinking” and “transformational techniques.” They are selling you snake oil, fads and gimmicks designed to lighten your balance sheet a little.

The essence of management is simple – but it’s not easy. We all know what we have to do better: improve our products; inspire and keep our employees; bond with our customers in unique ways; manage our investments to build future assets; and keep a keen eye on our costs to prevent fat from accumulating in dangerous places.

That’s all there is to it. But the concomitant truth is that very few can do these simple things well. Most people meander along in a never-ending process of trial and error, getting it more wrong than right. Many try to look for the latest new management theory, technique or tool in their quest to survive. Most fail.

This column has always been about showcasing the best thinking about management and leadership – and that means the clearest, the simplest and the most essential. That tradition will continue in 2010. In the meantime, season’s greetings to all.

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