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Leadership lessons from Job in the time of pandemic

The Job story admonishes all of us who are leaders, would-be leaders, and engaged followers to pay attention, to be humble about our own abilities to control outcomes, and to harmonize our actions with natural systems.

Job and His Friends
Ilya Repin, 1869

Like many people in this era of quarantine and social distancing, I’ve turned to uplifting news stories, gripping novels, and entertaining podcasts for solace and diversion. But for deeper insight I’ve been rereading the Book of Job.

To recap: By almost any standard, Job would be considered a real civic leader. He’s wealthy and by the time’s standards “blameless and upright.” The New English Bible reports he owns 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 asses, and many slaves. He cares for the needy, and when he enters the public square, high-ranking citizens listen respectfully to his opinions. He’s the kind of person publishers might pursue to write a best-seller, “Top Ten Leadership Lessons from Job of Uz.”

Deprived of wealth, health …

Yet God agrees to let Satan deprive Job of all his wealth, his sons and daughters, and even his own health. Satan has presented a challenge: Let’s see if Job remains so righteous and God-fearing once his fortunes have turned and he’s brought low. 

Job is left with next to nothing and afflicted with “running sores from head to foot.” He launches into a lengthy lament of self-defense and demands that God show up and explain why he’s being so mistreated.

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Finally, God relents and (in effect) says from the whirlwind: “Listen up! Look around. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Did you set the boundaries between land and sea? Do you control the weather and the seasons? Do you determine the laws of nature on earth?

“Just take a look at all the marvelous wild creatures in the world. They accomplish amazing feats without your help.”

At last, Job drops his defenses and his eyes are opened to his lack of control over creation and his relative insignificance in the universe. He repents his former ignorance and arrogance.

In times of crisis, we humans are easily tempted to turn to seemingly powerful men and women; humans understandably yearn for the all-seeing savior, or the guarantor of better times. Yet, Job’s story points away from such illusory hope.

The writer of Job offers a powerful counter-punch to an old (still familiar) story: that material success is a sign of God’s favor and deserved by those who are widely celebrated (even if their success stems from forced labor). The Job story admonishes all of us who are leaders, would-be leaders, and engaged followers to pay attention, to be humble about our own abilities to control outcomes, and to harmonize our actions with natural systems. It prompts us to remember that we must care for our earthly habitat.

A modern version

An especially vital leadership skill just now is storytelling that makes sense of our current tragedy and offers a vision of a sustainable future. What, then, is the story that wise leaders and followers might convey today? Perhaps it’s simply a modern version of the Job story, one that points out the limitations of powerful people and nations, celebrates the awe-ful beauty of the natural world, and recognizes that the most sustainable leadership is vested in a host of collaborative leaders and engaged followers.

Barbara C. Crosby
Barbara C. Crosby
It might peel back the capitalistic veil to show that the great profits of many corporations rest on the tenuous, underpaid employment of cleaners, stockers, delivery people, servers, and gig workers. It might highlight the great insights of scientists yet acknowledge the imperfections and ambiguities in the experts’ models and research findings. It might celebrate community-level examples of supporting health care workers or farm families, of transitioning to low-carbon modes of transportation and energy production. It might point toward public policies such as a carbon tax, cultural preservation, or guaranteed early childhood education.  

People are hungry for such stories. Witness the response to the bedtime tale and YouTube sensation “The Great Realisation” or to former President George W. Bush’s recent video message

It took a lot to get Job’s attention, and the massive global pandemic has finally awakened more and more people to the planet’s fragility and the interconnected fate of its human societies. Let us craft a host of new stories that help us act on these insights. 

Barbara C. Crosby is associate professor emerita at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and author with John M. Bryson of Leadership for the Common Good.”

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