Hasidic Wisdom for Managers

Ancient Jewish wisdom can help you thrive in business — really!

Business management today is at a crossroads, torn between the sometimes contradictory goals of maximizing shareholder profit and ethical behavior. In this confusing environment, managers look for time-tested sources of wisdom that can provide a holistic moral compass. 

In my own high-tech career, I’ve often used traditional Jewish stories, especially Hasidic tales, in a variety of management contexts: to motivate teams, to impart a lesson to a fellow manager, to grab an audience’s attention. Almost always, I’ve found that the message gets across. Why Hasidic stories? Because the Hasidic tale has a world of timeless insight and wisdom for the modern business world.

The Hasidic Masters used stories as a medium to transmit values and stimulate insights on the part of their followers. A good story is a sort of Trojan horse that bypasses our natural conscious defenses — as you hear it, you identify with a specific character and hope for a specific outcome. Only at the end of the story do you discover the parallels to your everyday existence, but by then it is too late – you have already taken a side and arrived at a conclusion that may be far different than what you believed before you heard the story. 

But enough talking about stories — let’s hear some stories! These are classic Hasidic stories, translated and/or retold by me.


Taking the First Coin


A kidnapped Jew was being held for ransom, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi knew that the only person in town with the means to donate the ransom was Velvel the Apostate whose hatred of anything Jewish ran so deep that whenever a Jew approached his palace he would send a pack of dogs to tear him limb from limb. Even so, Shneur Zalman was determined to ask him for help to save his fellow Jew.

Seeing Shneur Zalman’s determination, his friends Elimelekh and Dov Ber insisted on accompanying him to protect him from harm. “You may join me,” said Shneur Zalman, “but on one condition – you must both remain silent, and let me alone speak with Velvel.” They agreed and set off together.

Miraculously, they arrived at Velvel’s home without encountering any guard dogs, and knocked on the door. Velvel himself opened it. He was taken aback by the sight of the three Hasidic students. “I see the Jews have forgotten how much I despise their visits,” he said. “I shall have to get more dogs!”

“Please, hear me out,” said Shneur Zalman. “We’ve come on an urgent mission.” Shneur Zalman explained the purpose of their visit — how a Jew’s life hung in the balance, what a tragedy it would be for his wife and children if he were killed, the great reward that awaited anyone who participated in the redemption of captives. Velvel was moved. “You’ve shown great courage in coming here,” he said. “Many years ago, I put something aside to donate to a worthy cause. I believe this is the occasion to give it. Wait here and I will bring it to you.”

Velvel returned and, with a flourish, he handed Shneur Zalman … a single penny! “There you are, young man,” he said. “I wish you luck in raising the rest of the ransom.”

Shneur Zalman’s friends were about to rebuke Velvel for his miserliness. One penny, indeed! But Shneur Zalman silenced them with a look. “Thank you so much,” said Shneur Zalman to Velvel. “I appreciate your effort to assist in our cause. May God reward you for your part in saving a fellow Jew’s life.” There was no irony in Shneur Zalman’s voice, only sincere gratitude. With that, Shneur Zalman turned to leave, with his stunned companions following him.

They had taken only a few steps when they heard Velvel’s voice behind them. “Wait! Perhaps I can find something else in the house to contribute.” They returned to the door, and Velvel reappeared after a few minutes to give them … two pennies! Again, Shneur Zalman was effusive in his thanks, and they turned to leave.

Velvel called them back a third time, and gave them ten pennies; a fourth time he offered a gold coin; the fifth time, five gold coins. Each time, Shneur Zalman was genuinely thankful, without a hint of reproof in his voice. They did not leave Velvel that night until he had donated the entire amount needed to rescue the captive — 600 gold coins.

As they walked back to town, Elimelekh asked in admiration, “How did you know that our mission to Velvel would be successful?” “I knew that Velvel had within him the strength to give the entire sum, if only he could give the first penny,” said Shneur Zalman. “His problem was that no one was willing to take the first penny from him. Once I took it with sincere gratitude and encouragement, the wellsprings of his soul were opened up and he was able to give the entire amount.”

Shneur Zalman transforms Velvel because he believes that Velvel is capable of great deeds, and he understands the symbolic value of the first penny. This is the work of management in a nutshell: to take the first penny, what people think they can give, and then challenge them to meet ever higher expectations.

Think about the best manager you ever had. Was it someone who set low expectations and assigned you modest tasks that could be accomplished with reasonable effort? Probably not. That kind of manager doesn’t promote growth or stick in people’s minds. Or did your most memorable manager set high expectations, challenge you to do something ambitious, and give you the guidance that enabled you to succeed?

Are you, as a manager, providing ambitious but achievable expectations, challenges and a sense of accomplishment to your team?


The Cabbage Hat


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!”

Rabbi Shlomo’s father-in-law has confused embarrassment with shame. Perhaps 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. So wear that cabbage leaf with your head held high.


The Unlocked Gate


The Talmud tells us that, in Heaven, the gates of salvation are never locked — they are always open to the prayers of the broken-hearted. Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P’shischa once asked his Hasidim, “If the gates are always open, then why did God put gates there at all? What purpose do they serve?” He explained, “The gates keep out those who do not even try. Seeing the gates, some immediately assume that the way is barred, and they turn back. If only they would give the slightest push, God Himself would swing the gates open wide and clear the way before them.”

Rabbi Simcha tells us that God helps those who help themselves — the smallest push can cause the gates of salvation to swing wide open. It is those who do not push at all who are doomed to failure. In business, too, hard workers tend to benefit from lucky breaks and tail winds more often than slackers. As the old adage has it, “Luck is the residue of hard work.”


The Great Professor of Anipoli


Once there was a Hasid named Avraham whose wife fell seriously ill. Her condition worsened from day to day, and the local doctors were unable to cure her. Avraham traveled to Nishchiz to seek the counsel of his Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai.

“Rebbe, I’ve come to ask you to help my wife,” implored Avraham. “I have been unable to find a doctor who can cure her. Please counsel me — who is the best doctor to heal her?”

Rabbi Mordechai did not hesitate. “You should travel to the great Professor of Anipoli. He will cure your wife.”

Avraham thanked the Rebbe, and immediately set out on horseback. The journey from Nishchiz to Anipoli was long and arduous. When he arrived in Anipoli, Avraham approached the first person he saw. “Can you please tell me where the great Professor lives?” “We have no professor in this town,” was the puzzled reply. Avraham rushed to the town synagogue and asked an elderly gentleman, “Can you please tell me where the great Professor lives?” The gentleman was mystified. “We have no professor in Anipoli,” he responded kindly. Avraham was undaunted. “Perhaps he is not known in these parts as Professor. Can you please tell me where the town doctor lives?” “Anipoli is a very small town,” said the old man, “so small that we don’t even have a doctor here.” Avraham was stunned. His Rebbe was a holy man, with vast knowledge of this world and the world to come. How could Rabbi Mordechai have made such a grave error as to send him looking for the great Professor of Anipoli, a doctor who did not exist?

Full of doubt, Avraham made his way back to Nishchiz and came before Rabbi Mordechai. “I followed your advice and went to find the great Professor of Anipoli, but Anipoli has no professor! They don’t even have a doctor!”

“So, what does a person in Anipoli do when he falls ill?” asked Rabbi Mordechai.

“What can he do? What choice does he have?” blurted Avraham. “His only option is to pray to God to have mercy on him and send a cure from Heaven.”

Rabbi Mordechai smiled. “Ah, yes. That is the great Professor of Anipoli I mentioned to you. And may He who cures the people of Anipoli also bring your wife a speedy recovery.” And so it was. Avraham returned to his home and discovered that his wife’s illness had passed.

Avraham believes there must be a doctor somewhere who is greater than the local doctors. Rabbi Mordechai teaches him that his faith in some remote all-knowing shaman is misplaced. Think of this story the next time you are tempted to hire a consultant. Is morale flagging in Engineering? Did an embarrassing bug sneak by the Quality Assurance department? Never fear! There is an army of consultants eager to help you solve your company’s problems. Each of them claims to be the great Professor of Anipoli, possessing knowledge and experience far beyond that available in your organization. Before you rush out in search of an all-knowing consultant, consider the resources within your organization whose power can be brought to bear to research and address the problem. Like Avraham, you may expend a great deal of time, effort and money seeking out the great Professor of Anipoli, only to discover that the Professor offers no better answer than the one that was under your nose all along.

 ***


Today’s senior managers aspire to provide inspirational leadership that can give employees a vision of where they are going and why they want to get there; Hasidism provides us with vivid insights into human nature and evocative examples of such leadership. These stories remind us that management is as much about managing people as projects: it’s about coaxing the best from one’s workers by offering a combination of encouragement, appreciation and high expectations. These insights are relevant not just for managers but for everyone. After all, we are all managers — of ourselves, of our time and of our relationships with other people.

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