Many people find it much easier to deal with failure than success. For them, it is easier to fire somebody – or at least retrain them – than to deal with the issues surrounding growth: plant expansion, capitalization, new hires, etc. Or in one’s family, this might mean the marriage of a child, going off to college, a promotion at work or even paying off a car loan! In other words, we are often far more comfortable wallowing in our trough than in climbing out of the gutter and enjoying the fruits of our success. Why?
From the Children of Israel’s half, which Moses divided off from the men that warred (against the Midianites), the congregation’s half was 337,500 sheep and 36,000 cattle and 3,500 asses and 16,000 persons– even of the Children of Israel’s half. Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of beast, and gave them unto the Levites, that kept the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD; as the LORD commanded Moses. And the officers that were over the thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, and the captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses; and they said unto Moses: ‘Your servants have taken the sum of the men of war that are under our charge, and there lack not one man of us. And we have brought the LORD’S offering, what every man has taken, of jewels of gold, armlets, and bracelets, signet-rings, earrings, and pendants, to make atonement for our souls before the LORD.’ And Moses and Eleazar the Priest took the gold from them, even all wrought jewels. And all the gold of the gift that they set apart for the LORD, of the captains of thousands, and of the captains of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels. — For the men of war had taken booty, every man for himself.– And Moses and Eleazar the Priest took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the Tent of Meeting, as a remembrance for the Children of Israel before the LORD.
–Numbers 21.42-54 (Parashat Mattot)
Prior to this passage, we read of the Israelites defeating the Midianites in battle. The Israelites make off with a tremendous amount of booty, including jewelry, cattle and slaves. Seemingly, their casualties were also very light.
As a thanksgiving offering, they brought one-fiftieth of their bounty before the Levites – and the officers dedicated their entire cache of spoils. These were given to Eleazar, the High Priest, as a remembrance before God.
All too often, the leadership literature focuses on how to improve productivity and behavior. In other words, how we correct mistakes and train people is paramount to the success of a company. Of course, this is true to a large extent; we focus on making sure that the people that we hire know how to work effectively, affirm the values of the company and live the Mission Statement. In our families, our children are expected the share our values. In our houses of worship, we bond with like-minded believers. And when mistakes happen, we try to correct those mistakes, by counseling, training, re-assignment of tasks or, as a last resort, termination.
But we often find it hard as servant-leaders to deal with success. I’m not talking about rewarding a top producer with a paid vacation to Bora Bora. Incentive trips, quite frankly, have been shown to have a limited effect on production since they affect only a small number of people. And the more incentives that are offered, the less seriously workers take the contest.
What I want to discuss is the fear that many servant-leaders have towards becoming successful. As I stated in my preamble, with success comes growth: added production, more personnel, perhaps a larger facility. In the family, we might be talking about a larger home or perhaps new family members, such as a son-in-law or even grandchildren. Or perhaps the size of our congregation may demand building a new sanctuary or school wing. We all might agree that these are pleasant problems to have – and certainly preferable to layoffs and foreclosures – but many of us fear them and will deliberately sabotage our own efforts at success in order not to deal with the effects of that very success. Certainly we want to be successful but we are afraid of the intermediate steps.
So what can we do as servant-leaders to avoid self-sabotage?
I would recommend that we examine closely this passage. Instead of worrying about the future – conquering the Land of Israel – which would be an overwhelming task, the Israelites instead focused on showing gratitude for what they had already accomplished. This allowed the to realize just how far they had come since their days as Egyptian slaves – they now possessed slaves (in the form of prisoners of war) – and countless amounts of treasure, which they desired to dedicate to God.
Possessing an “attitude of gratitude” allowed the Israelites to plan for the future without a sense of fear. They felt that since they had already accomplished so much, the rest of the journey had to be within reach. And so, they were able to set forth on their path to the Holy Land, secure in their knowledge that God was with them and that they were true servant-leaders for having acknowledged a Higher Power – and a higher calling – to their journey.
So perhaps instead of incentivizing success and then worrying about the ramifications of that success later, we should instead focus upon gratitude for what we have already achieved. This will allow us to consolidate our victories, focus on our best practices and then be able to prepare for future victories, secure in the knowledge that we are that much closer to achieving our ultimate goals and vision. If we encourage our co-workers to share in that gratitude, that may prove to be a far greater incentive than a week in Bora Bora.
Rabbi Jordan Parr is a noted author and teacher. He is available for workshops, keynotes and lectures at firstname.lastname@example.org.