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The Hasidic Masters' Guide to Management

May 9, 2009 | by

A new book applies the wisdom of inspiring Jewish stories to the world of business management.

An excerpt from "The Hasidic Masters' Guide to Management," by Moshe Kranc.

1. The Winning Team Pulls Together


Napoleon's early successes in the Franco-Russian War put Jewish leaders in a delicate position. Some rabbis living under the oppression of the Czar's rule welcomed Napoleon as a savior, but others worried that the French Enlightenment would undermine the rock-solid commitment of Russian Jews to their faith. Most rabbis adopted a policy of neutrality, waiting to see which side would emerge victorious.

As Napoleon's army swept through Russia, a French general who stopped in the town of Volozhin requested a meeting with the famous Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, known far and wide among both Jews and Gentiles for his wisdom in worldly affairs. Rabbi Haim was reluctant to be drawn into a political discussion, but as an invitation from an occupying general could not be declined, Rabbi Haim went to the general's headquarters.

The two men discussed various religious matters and each was impressed with the other's erudition. Finally, the general asked Rabbi Haim, "You have a reputation for wisdom in worldly matters. Do you think the French army will defeat the Russians? Please tell me the truth."

"If it is the truth you seek," replied Rabbi Haim, "then I must tell you that I believe the Russians will win the war."

"I appreciate your honesty, Rabbi," said the general. "But as a military man, I assure you that the French forces have far superior training and equipment. Our army is made up of the finest soldiers in the French Empire. The Russian army is a ragtag band of untrained peasants."

"With your permission, I will tell you an incident that I witnessed when I was a boy," said Rabbi Haim.

"A baron's luxurious coach drawn by four powerful thoroughbred stallions sunk mired in a swamp. The coachman whipped the steeds furiously, but no matter how the horses labored, the coach did not budge.

"At that moment, a local farmer happened by in a simple wagon pulled by two nags. To the baron's surprise, the farmer maneuvered his wagon around the coach and through to the other side of the swamp.

"'Stop," shouted the baron to the farmer. 'Please tell me, where did you get such remarkable horses that can traverse this mud with ease?'

"The farmer laughed. 'Your Lordship, there is nothing remarkable about my nags. Your pedigreed horses are far more valuable than mine, and that is precisely your problem. Each of your horses wishes to prove to the others that it is the strongest. So, when one horse pulls, the other horses do nothing, because they do not wish to help the other horse succeed. My poor nags may have no pedigree, but they grew up together and when they pull the wagon it is a joint endeavor.'

"With all due respect, General," continued Rabbi Haim, "I believe this is the problem of your army. Your soldiers are well trained and have excellent pedigrees, but they come from diverse backgrounds and each soldier fights strictly for his own glory. Not so the Russian army. They are all one nationality, and each member fights for a common cause -- their homeland. They fight as one. This is why I believe that the Russian army will win the war."

The ensuing years proved Rabbi Haim's assessment to be correct.

The winning team may not be pedigreed -- but it pulls together.

Rabbi Haim knows what it takes to build a winning team. A group rarely fails due to a lack of talent. Often there is too much of the same kind of talent, but not enough cooperation among the team members.

Staffing your team with superstar individual performers is not the formula for success. A productive team pulls together because each member truly wants the other to succeed, and is willing to help in any way possible.

* * *

I once took over a team of 12 engineers whose previous manager had supervised all 12 of them directly, but had promised each and every one a promotion to group leader. I devoted my first day on the job to meeting with each engineer individually.

Irene, a senior team member, spent her hour describing the failings of her colleague, Stan. I left the meeting convinced that, despite her seniority and technical expertise, I could not, in good conscience, allow her to manage a junior engineer.

My next talk, with Stan, was more of the same. He related anecdotes about Irene's failings as an engineer and as a human being. He boasted of the technical problems he had solved single-handedly. I walked away convinced that he was an important individual contributor, but I saw in him more ego than management skills.

Next up was Mary, a junior engineer. I asked her to tell me about an accomplishment she was proud of. She told me about how she had successfully absorbed a new member into the team and brought him up to speed. Although Mary was not the top expert on the company's products, she was competent and enjoyed mentoring and sharing information.

That evening, mulling over these discussions, I tried to formulate what I was looking for in a group leader. It wasn't superlative engineering skills, although technical competence was a must. I decided on a rule of thumb: a group leader must be someone who enjoys building people up rather than tearing them down. That's the kind of person I want to manage me, and that's the kind of manager I trust to mentor a new employee.

A couple of weeks later, Irene was flattered when her previous boss asked her to join him in Sales, and Stan was pleased when I promoted him to Chief Technology Officer for the group with solo responsibility for solving thorny problems. With the way clear now, I promoted Mary to group leader, a role she performed with great success.

2. Do You Work To Live Or Live To Work?


Once there was a Hasid named Zundel who earned his living by buying and selling horses. He worked hard and enjoyed his trade, but still found time every year to visit the court of his Master, Rabbi Isaac of Vorka.

On one such visit, Rabbi Isaac saw Zundel deep in animated conversation. Rabbi Isaac was pleased to see his followers discussing his teachings with such enthusiasm. Coming closer, Rabbi Isaac was disappointed to find that they were not discussing spiritual matters at all -- Zundel was telling a story about a champion stallion! Several days later, Rabbi Isaac again overheard Zundel talking excitedly about a nag he had recently sold for a great profit.

A week passed. It was time for Zundel to return home, and he went to Rabbi Isaac to receive the customary blessing for the journey. Rabbi Isaac clasped Zundel's hand.

"Before I bless you, Zundel, please tell me, is there any question you have for me?"

Zundel was overjoyed at the opportunity to seek his master's advice. He launched into a description of a potential business deal involving a herd of mares. "Rebbe, please tell me," he concluded, "do you recommend I buy the herd or not?"

"May God grant you success in whatever path you choose," responded Rabbi Isaac, "so that you may continue to provide a good living for your horses."

Zundel was puzzled by his teacher's advice.

Rabbi Isaac continued, "Our sages once asked: why did God create man last among all the creatures during the six days of creation? They explained that the response is different for each and every man, depending on his behavior. If a man does good deeds and is worthy before God, we say, 'you were created last so that all God's creatures could be present to serve you.' If, on the other hand, a man is unworthy, we say 'you were created last to teach you your true place in nature. Even the mosquito preceded you in creation and is more important in God's eyes.' "

Rabbi Isaac continued. "A man, by his thoughts and behavior, can raise himself so high that all of creation serves him, or he can lower himself to the point where his entire purpose in life is to feed mosquitoes with his blood! So, too, a horse trader can be worthy or unworthy. If he is worthy, God sends him horses so that he may support himself. If, on the other hand, he is unworthy, then God helps the horses He created by sending them a horse trader to support them. Both men earn the same living, but there is a world of difference between them. The worthy man has horses who work for him, while the unworthy man works all his life for his horses."

Zundel winced. Rabbi Isaac said kindly, "My blessing for you, Zundel, is that you merit to clean out your stable." Seeing Zundel's hurt look, Rabbi Isaac continued, "By spending all your waking hours thinking about your horses, I fear that you have turned your head into a stable, a place where only horses dwell. May you merit to clean out the stable, and find room in your mind for loftier thoughts."

Chastened but wiser, Zundel returned to his home.

The worthy man works for his living, while the unworthy man lives for his work.

Nowadays we would call Zundel a workaholic. Even when he gets away to visit his Rebbe, he is still preoccupied with his business deals. Rabbi Isaac tries to show Zundel that his life is unbalanced -- rather than utilizing his work as a means to spiritual growth, Zundel has become a slave to his horses. Only by "cleaning out the stable" can Zundel fulfill his potential as a human being.

Rabbi Isaac's advice is as sound today as it was then. A manager's work can be totally absorbing, to the point where it crowds out all other aspects of a well-balanced life. Ask yourself: do you work in order to live, or is work your life? Are you pouring all your energies into work, or is work one of many activities that enrich your life? And the same for the employees you manage -- do you expect them to make work their life, or do you encourage them to keep in its proper perspective?

To Rabbi Isaac, the answer to these questions determines whether you are the master or the slave to your environment.


SAS Institute, the provider of statistical analysis software for large databases, is an example of a company that does not compel its employees to choose between their work and their lives. The company's philosophy is simple: "The best way to produce the best and get the best results is to behave as if the people who are creating those things for you are important to you…. It just means you take care of the folks who are taking care of you."

Although SAS is in a highly competitive market, the company is famous for its thirty-five-hour workweek and generous family-oriented benefits. SAS provides on-site daycare and encourages employees to visit and eat lunch with their children during th day, coach their sports teams and be involved in their education. The spacious campus hosts weekend picnics and features a first-rate athletic facility, open to employees and their families.

It is tempting to think of SAS as a non-profit hippy commune, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their business analysis software must meet the exacting standards of large enterprises that require stable and predictable vendors. SAS software is used by more than 80% of the Fortune 500 companies, making SAS the largest private software company in the world, with annual sales of over $1.1 billion.

SAS stands out in its ability to build a successful business, that is in harmony with, rather than in opposition to, their employees' family lives. SAS recognizes that employees have relationships outside of work, and provides benefits that help them effectively meet their family commitments. The results are impressive -- more than 24 consecutive years of double-digit growth, a turnover rate of under 5%, and a workplace that attracts more than thirty applicants for each vacant position. (From: "Business and the Spirit: Management Practices that Sustain Values," Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford University Research Paper No. 1713, October 2001)

3. Don't Trade Embarrassment for Shame


The followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk were known for their extreme poverty and devotion to the truth. One of his Hasidim, Rabbi Shlomo, was so poor that he could not afford to buy a hat. He would keep his head dry with a cabbage leaf when he walked in the rain.

His father-in-law saw this public display of poverty.

"Aren't you ashamed to be seen wearing a cabbage leaf for a hat?" he asked Rabbi Shlomo.

Rabbi Shlomo was puzzled. "Why should I be ashamed? I didn't steal the cabbage leaf!"

There's no shame in wearing a cabbage leaf for a hat, so long as you came by it honestly.

Rabbi Shlomo's father-in-law has confused embarrassment with shame. Rabbi Shlomo might be embarrassed by his poverty, and feel chagrin when he sees other families with more financial stability. But Rabbi Shlomo has no cause for shame -- after all, he has done nothing dishonest which might bring him disgrace.

In business, a manager who achieves financial success, advancement or fame can feel justifiably proud. By contrast, managing an unsuccessful enterprise can be embarrassing.

But remember that there is no shame in failure if you gave the attempt your best try. Resist the seductive temptation to achieve success via dishonest means. You will find yourself simultaneously proud and ashamed, fearful of the disgrace that will come when your dishonesty is discovered -- and, as the past few years' business headlines demonstrate, a great deal of dishonesty is eventually discovered.


Enron's executives were masters at converting embarrassment into shame. The energy giant ran up billions of dollars in debt, certainly an embarrassing performance. Rather than face an unpleasant reality, they embarked on a shameful campaign of deception, overstating income and hiding the astronomical debt from shareholders and employees via a labyrinth of phony partnerships, shell companies and fabricated subsidiaries.

In the short term, they avoided embarrassment, as they bolstered the price of their stock and continued to attract new investors. In the long term, they brought shame and ruin upon themselves, destroyed the jobs and retirement savings of their 11,000 employees, and toppled America's seventh largest company.

* * *

Enron's auditor, Aurthur Andersen LLP, fared no better in resisting the temptation to convert embarrassment into wealth via subterfuge.

Enron paid their accounting firm $52 million per year for both accounting services and consulting services. As accountants, Andersen had an ethical obligation to objectively examine the company's balance sheets. But as well-paid consultants, they had a vested interest in their client's appearance of success. Andersen officials became committed accomplices to Enron's fraudulent practices.

As the scandal emerged, Andersen's lawyers instructed their employees to shred thousands of pages of documents that would have shed light on Enron's crimes. This attempt to cover up shameful behavior via even more shameful behavior backfired. Andersen was found guilty of obstructing justice, their customers fled to more reputable accounting firms, and the venerable accounting firm closed its doors in 2002.


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