Review: The Accidental Executive

Accidental ExecutiveThe Accidental Executive, by Albert M. Erisman, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2015.

Summary: A former Boeing executive reflects deeply on the biblical character of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and amplifies on these reflections from his own experience in business leadership and interviews with other executives in a highly readable account suitable for discussion groups in business and church settings.

Over the years I’ve seen many people write books that are a variation on the theme of “leadership lessons from the life of….” What sets the good ones apart from others in my opinion is how carefully and closely the author actually remains to the biblical text, not forcing it to affirm things it does not say or speculating or over-psychologizing the text.

This is one of the better examples of this genre in my opinion. It is evident to me that the author, a former Boeing executive, has spent a long time soaking in the narrative of Joseph’s life from his immature beginnings and lack of awareness of how his brothers perceived him, to his formative experiences as a slave where he feared God, worked responsibly and fled sexual temptation, to prison years where he devotes himself to the task at hand, trusts God over the long years as he awaits deliverance, and then forthrightly, and without regard to personal position advises Pharoah with divine insight and good strategic insight cultivated through years of service. Then we see how he copes with fantastic success, confronts the thorny issues of reconciliation with those who betrayed his trust, and his later years.

I thought it of particular interest that Erisman questions some of the later decisions and the lack of apparent consultation on Joseph’s part when he institutes policies that enslave all of Egypt (while his own family enjoys special privilege) and how this might have contributed to the eventual enslavement of Jacobs descendants. This was a new thought to me and I thought reflected well on approach to scripture that doesn’t see accounts of lives like Joseph’s as unvarying hagiographies but rather descriptions of people who both walked with God and made mistakes.

Erisman enriches his reflections by drawing upon his own experience in industry as a Director of Technology for the Boeing Corporation. Discussing Joseph’s patience for example, he talks about a strategy that his R & D folk came up with to make production processes more efficient that was squashed by conflict between two divisions but adopted five years later when assembly was bogged down and needed this solution. He describes meetings he held with his division during a downturn as an example of dealing with fear through utter transparency that did not withhold bad news nor what steps were being taken by the company.

While Erisman’s own experiences often make him aware of subtleties in the text of Genesis, the stories that came out of his interviews with other execs, orginally appearing in ethix.org, gave memorable illustrations that particularly underscored the quality of integrity that ran through Joseph’s life. Perhaps most moving was the example of Wayne Alderson, who turned around Pittron Steel through his “value of the person” campaign, where he provided an office for the union president, spent regular time on the shop floor with employees and regularly thanked them for their work as they finished a shift. Through this he made Pittron profitable, and a buy-out target. When the new owners expressed appreciation for what Alderson had done but did not want him to continue the practices that accomplished these results, Alderson walked away rather than compromise. He also tells the story of Sherron Watkins, who was the whistle-blower at Enron who exposed its fraudulent accounting, at the cost of her job.

Not all the execs lost their jobs however. We also have narratives of Gloria Nelund in the banking industry, Alan Mullaly at Ford, Bill Pollard at Servicemaster and Bonnie Wurzbacher at Coca-Cola among many others who talk about the challenges and opportunities for influence in the business world. And this underscores a final value of this book in revealing that there is no sacred-secular dualism where spiritual work is better than work in the world of business. Erisman concludes his book with a discussion of calling that argues that people can answer the big call of God on their lives in corporate life and the world of business.

The book’s chapters are short and make this ideal for discussions in business and professional groups considering the ethics and spirituality of work. The format also lends itself well to personal reflection and the book, printed on high quality paper, makes a great gift for the business person in one’s life. Church groups that want to gain an appreciation for the world of work and the opportunities for spiritual faithfulness will also find this book a great resource.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Question of Identity in Academic Life

Identity can be a challenging and confusing thing for anyone to sort out, and certainly this is the case in the academic setting. And part of the challenge is that we may be identified and self-identify in various ways. There is our race or ethnicity, our socio-economic class, our country and even city of origin, our gender and sexual orientation, our political persuasion, our academic status in terms of both appointments and achievements. And for the follower of Christ, there is one’s identification with Christ.

Yesterday was the last day of our Midwest Faculty Conference (I had many wrap up duties yesterday and travel today and so am just getting around to posting). As on other days, it seemed that our morning Bible studies captured an important thread of the day’s discussion. We looked at Genesis 50:15-26. Jacob, the father of the patriarchs have died and the brothers wonder if the reconciliation between them and Joseph will survive their father’s death. Will Joseph use his power as an Egyptian leader to retaliate for the fact that they sold him into slavery? So they concoct a message from Jacob on his deathbed pleading for understanding and they offer themselves as slaves.

Joseph weeps and says he would never do such a thing as they fear and that he will use his power to look out for them. But why does he weep? I think it is because the brothers act seems to reflect that they see Joseph as an Egyptian first, rather than as their brother and a fellow son of Jacob — an Israelite. Subsequently Joseph makes the matter clear. While he lives out his life in Egypt in service to Pharoah, his burial instructions specify that his body be returned to the land promised to Abraham when his people returned to that land. For Joseph, his Israelite identity was paramount and it defined his loyalty to his family and even his burial place. Yet he negotiated another identity, as an Egyptian leader, married by Pharoah to the daughter of a priest of an Egyptian god.

And this is the challenge of the multiple ways in which we identify ourselves, or others identify us. All of them are important. All of them have shaped who we are, how we see the world and relate to it, what we value. We can no more shed these things than our own skin. And sometimes, these multiple identities clash, and what do we do then? We heard of instances during the conference of conflicts where a university leader might need to implement decisions contrary to their faith commitments. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate and find a better way. And sometimes not, and what does one do then?

At least part of the answer comes from clarity about which identity is paramount and “arbitrates” among the others. Perhaps it is not always obvious, but it seems that for Christians, there can be no other “paramount” identity than one’s allegiance to Christ, and secondarily to his global people who are constituted of the whole mosaic of identities existing in human society.  Yet this does not mean our responses to conflicting identity commitments are simple and clearcut, or will be the same. How our commitment to Christ arbitrates with our other identity commitments might look different for different ones of us. The nuances of how a Christian faculty member might deal with academic dishonesty might differ depending on whether s/he (and the student for that matter) comes from a shame or a guilt oriented culture, for example. Yet the exercise of justice, truth, and grace in the context of university policy will be a common thread in each of these situations, one would hope.

What do you think of this idea of paramount identity as key to negotiating our multiple identities and the conflicts these sometimes place us in? How have you experienced these challenges and how have you responded?

 

If God is With Us…

The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did. (Genesis 39:23, NIV).

In the faculty conference I have been writing about in this week’s posts we have daily Bible studies on the life of Joseph in Genesis. In the conference we have been wrestling with some of the big challenges facing higher education in this present time and what Christians working in this arena can do to contribute to the flourishing of the educational institutions at which we work. There are no simple answers! But one thing a number of us have reflected on is what does it mean for God to be with us in our work?

What this doesn’t mean is that we are trying to Christianize the places we work. Joseph didn’t do that in Egypt. Eventually, because of God’s presence and gifting, he advises Pharoah about how to prepare his nation to weather an extended famine, the nation, ironically, that would eventually enslave his people. While he is in prison, he is helping a system run smoothly that supports a capricious justice system. He brings efficiency to the prison, and perhaps better conditions, and saves many lives in Egypt including his own family through his work with Pharoah.

Perhaps that is what it means to have God with us in our work in the university. It may not be a matter of creating the “ultimate” solution to the big challenges, but it is a matter of experiencing the enabling of God to know and do the right things in the particular places of God calls us to. One of our speakers observed that every single faculty in the room had some sphere of influence, all of them are leaders.

Furthermore, the presence of God suggests that often our God enabled work will bring tangible benefit that is noticeable to even those who do not share our belief. I know people whose integrity has led to their being given deanships or chairs because people recognize an intangible “something” that makes them trustworthy–the person who will do the work in a way that leads to flourishing.

It seems the big question for the person of faith, whether we work in a university or at a McDonald’s, is will I believe in the presence of God with me and be open to what that could mean in bringing blessing and flourishing to my context?

 

 

 

The Unsung Hero of Christmas

Joseph often strikes me as the unsung hero of the Christmas story. Of course the greatest hero is the Christ child, the Incarnate One who enters our world as a helpless babe for our salvation. And there is Mary, who receives Gabriel’s message with the words, “I am the servant of the Lord” even though the thing asked of her meant the possibility of being seen as an unwed mother and of having been unfaithful to Joseph, her betrothed. It is she who carries this child, who births him in difficult circumstances, and whose own heart will also be pierced as she one day beholds her crucified son. In most of our Christmas carols, however, Joseph gets less “air time” than the angels, the wise men, the shepherds or even the mythical drummer boy!

nativity_edited

Joseph is known for what he did not do. He did not denounce Mary or even put her away quietly. He took her as wife and, to leave the matter beyond question, did not have relations with her (a model of the possibility of restraint in our sexualized culture!).

What he did do is obey the angelic command and believe the declaration that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that he would save his people from sin. His belief and obedience carried them to Bethlehem, to Egypt, by roundabout ways to Nazareth. He raised the young boy, likely teaching him carpentry because Jesus is referred to both as the carpenter’s son and the carpenter whose father was Joseph. He and Mary anxiously searched for him after their visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 and Jesus stayed behind to converse with the religious teachers. This is the last we hear of Joseph alive.

Joseph, to me, represents everyday faithfulness, the behind the scenes kind of faithfulness that is usually only noticed by its absence. He does what needs to be done, whether finding an alternative to guest rooms, getting the family out of danger, and supporting a family and mentoring a son in a physically exacting and demanding trade. Carpentry likely included construction work as well as craftsmanship. And one also wonders if he had a role in teaching his son the scriptures, perhaps in conjunction with synagogue life.

It strikes me that Joseph might be the kind of hero we need to pay more attention to in our celebrity-driven culture, both outside and inside the church. We often seem to want to spend more time giving adulation to these celebrities, or if we are particularly ambitious, trying to become one of them. Joseph’s life calls us to a different path, the path of resolute but quiet belief worked out in love for those around us, obedience to God’s commands even when these don’t make sense (something that happens sooner or later for anyone who follows Christ), and the diligent stewardship of what is entrusted to us.

Joseph often seems a “bit player” in the Christmas story. Yet without him, there would be no story. And isn’t that the way it is for most of us? Isn’t it the case that the people who have had the greatest impact in our lives are usually not celebrities but likely those whose names will never appear in history books? Who has been a Joseph to you? And for whom can you be a Joseph?

Merry Christmas!