Business Ethics (Part 3): The Silver Fox

illuminareDec3post2It is a privilege to share some more knowledge with you today.

Our series is devoted to the study of the lineage of that veritable patriarch, Abraham. We looked at his business practices in the first part. In the second part we looked at that of his son, Isaac. And in this part we shall look at the business of his grandson, Jacob. He’s the silver fox in our title header.

The ethical challenges faced by these three men are no different from the typical ethical challenges faced by entrepreneurs. Indeed all three men are typological of the entrepreneurial circumstances.

Among the three generations of entrepreneurs it would seem that Jacob was the most ethically challenged. But his was a different kind of ethical challenge from that of his father and grandfather. Abraham was an extreme business pragmatist. That means he’d do whatever it takes to survive and prosper. He was willing to give away his wife, not once but twice to two powerful figures. That’s extreme. And he exploited both occasions for economic benefit. According to Abraham, when God told him he was going to be moving from place to place he reached an agreement with Sarah that she would always refer to him as her brother. That was a truth actually, though half-truth. Sarah WAS his half sister, but she was also his wife. Since he didn’t disclose she was his wife it meant Sarah could be married off to someone else. As noted, that almost happened on two different occasions. Two powerful kings showed interest – Pharaoh, and Abimelech. God had to intervene on the two occasions. “You’re a dead man,” God told Abimelech. Sounds like a mafia film.

Abraham was what you might call a self-made man. Isaac on the other hand inherited a great deal of wealth. He grew up a rich kid. But he tended towards the pragmatism of his dad, which was a dangerous ethical standard. Like his dad, he never disclosed Rebekah was his wife. King Abimelech looked out of the window one day and saw him caressing his wife and that was when the game was up. This Abimelech was not the Abimelech who fancied Sarah. This was his son. According to the Jewish text Haggadah, he had changed his name from Benmelech to Abimelech. Benmelech means “son of the king.” It makes sense to change such a name when you become king. But it would seem the Abimelechs had a generational fascination with the women in Abraham’s family. The Abimelechs of this world are a covetous lot.

Now, note that the ethical challenge of Abraham and Isaac were environmentally induced. They were reacting to fear. But Jacob’s was another thing entirely. His ethical challenge was character induced. He was a very smart fellow no doubt, but he would lie, cheat, do anything to get ahead. And it almost cost him his life. He had to go into exile. What Jacob shows us is that brilliance is one thing, ethics is another. And increasingly business schools are being forced to revise their curricula to incorporate ethics. The ghosts of Enron and Worldcom are haunting those schools. The guys who ran those corporations were from some of the most prestigious business schools. They were incredibly brilliant but crooked.

Jacob desperately wanted success. Even when he got his hip dislocated from wrestling with God he still managed to demand for blessing. Imagine the pain he was in! He was so much interested in making it that when he went into exile, arriving in the East, the first question he asked about his uncle from the shepherds he met was whether his uncle was successful. “Do you know a man there named Laban, the grandson of Nahor?” he asked. “Yes, we do,” the shepherds replied. “Is he doing well,” Jacob asked. (Gen. 29:5-6) In other words, is he rich and is he successful?

Now, one may not understand his devotion to success, but he seemed to need to prove a point urgently. He didn’t want his father’s albatross. His father had worked for his wealth no doubt, but the fact remains he received a large chunk of inheritance. And that often plagues the children of the rich. They don’t always get the respect they deserve for their accomplishments. They’re seen to have made good because of undue advantage provided by dad. Isaac for a long time operated under the shadow of his father. Jacob didn’t want that. He wanted to be recognised for his own accomplishments, to be respected. But his father preferred Esau. Esau was the wild, outdoorsy type who today would probably have his own reality TV show – Esau: Living in the Wild! His father’s preference for Esau would even have made Jacob want to succeed more, to prove a point. Esau and Jacob were twins but no two people could be more different. While Esau relied on brawn, Jacob relied on brain. Esau was coarse, Jacob was smooth, as smooth as his skin. In his bid to excel he became hyper-competitive, became so extremely driven he commercialised everything, even traded in futures. He bought the birthright and future of Esau. Esau was a profane fellow who sold his birthright for a first course meal of lentil soup, not even the main course! He was not a very smart fellow.

The first step towards achievement is the desire for achievement. This Jacob got right. But when the desire for success becomes too overwhelming it can consume a person, create blindness and cauterise the heart. That all consuming passion invariably leads down a certain path, a path best not taken. You will not have scruples in business.

It was right about when Jacob was inquiring about his uncle that he met the beautiful Rachel. She was sassy – extremely confident and energetic. You have to be if you were a female shepherd. She was the first female shepherd mentioned in the Bible. There weren’t too many women-shepherds in those days. She had brothers by the way, so it wasn’t because there were no men in the house. The only other instance of women-shepherd in the bible is Jethro’s seven daughters. Jethro was Moses’ father-in-law. Rachel’s career choice says a lot about her father’s sense of pragmatism, and the liberalism in her family. Obviously they didn’t believe in sexism. Or it might just be that Rachel was just one tough babe, a tomboy type.

Jacob met Rachel in virtually the same circumstance Abraham’s servant met Rebekah when he came looking for wife for Isaac. Unlike in the case of Rebekah however, Jacob did not have any gold or silver with which to impress beautiful Rachel and her family. He was broke, had no money. But he had sweat equity. And that incredible drive to succeed. When he got to Laban’s house and told his story – why he was running away from Esau, which of course meant he told his uncle how he snookered Esau out of his birthright and blessing – Laban made a very interesting remark: “You really are my own flesh and blood!” In order words, “I can see myself in you. We are one and the same. You have my genes!” You don’t want someone like Laban saying that about you. Laban was the most crooked fellow you ever met. You don’t want to do business with him. Even if you write a five hundred-page contract, spelling out every conceivable detail, it meant nothing. He would still cheat you. And he too had no ethical boundaries. He would cheat anyone, including his own young nephew. He even cheated his own daughters out of their inheritance. As far as Laban was concerned he had found a wonderful protégé in Jacob. They were like-minded. Same values. Here was this bright and very driven kid who’d do anything to succeed. Like him, he had no scruples or ethical boundaries. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose as mentor in business, or who chooses you as mentee! Both Laban and Jacob would end up snookering and counter-snookering each other. The relationship became a game of wits. If you ever find yourself in business with Laban you’ll have to anticipate his every move. These people cheat out of character. There’s always a fine print clause, which is only revealed after you’ve fulfilled your part of the contract. Payment will always be an issue. And they lie bold-faced, even when there’s no need to lie. It’s all a game of wits. They just must outsmart you, prove they’re “intelligent”. Values are negotiable to them.

You have to have an ethical definition. You can’t allow desire for success to so consume you, you can’t even recognise yourself in the mirror again. You’ll gain a certain reputation behind your back, and your character will spill into other areas of your life, including dating and matrimony. You can’t have a trusting relationship. You won’t trust anybody because you can’t trust yourself. You have to find a balance between your head and your heart. If you don’t you’ll threaten the very enterprise you’re building as you send aberrant messages into your system empowering your staff to take certain liberties. Values are not just things you put in a proposal to impress, or that you decorate a website or annual report with. Values are invisible guidance systems. They also turn a corporation into an integrated army. When distributed and operative they become culture. The economic benefit of values is that they lower the cost of operations. Think cost of internal control. If you set bad precedents as a boss, you’re institutionalising an enablement platform for aberrant human capacities.

Jacob was the kind of guy who’ll outsmart you legally in business and leave a sour taste in your mouth. That he lacked boundaries meant he dealt with his brother, dealt with his father, and dealt with his uncle as well. Whether they all deserved to be dealt with is not the issue. Once we start creating justification for bad behavior we endorse horror. Stop making excuses for bad behavior. Those who do always pay a price.

The natural question then arises: how would God’s prophecy have come to pass concerning the supplanting of Esau by Jacob if Jacob didn’t deceive his father? It’s a legitimate question. But why are we talking like the unlearned? Are we saying that He that controls the tongue could not have made Isaac pronounce blessing on Jacob as he sought to bless Esau? Was it not the same God who made Balaam bless Israel when he was procured to curse Israel? (Num. 23). Was it not the same God who made Jacob cross his hands when it came to blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, reversing the rights of natural birth and making Ephraim the head? (Gen. 48).

How can our unrighteousness work the righteousness of God? (Jas 1:20). Crookedness is not what activates the covenant of God. It only creates complications and puts difficulties in our way. Self-help is highly presumptuous. Why would we assume that a powerful and mighty God is incapable of bringing his own decrees to pass and so needs our self-help? Self-help is a demonstration of faithlessness. Heaven doesn’t help those who help themselves, heaven just wonders at those who resort to self-help.

What God did was to salvage the situation by invoking a proviso in his word that he God is he who works out everything in agreement with the counsel and design of his own will. (Eph. 1:11). God already made it known to Rebekah when she went for ultra sound scanning that two nations were inside of her; that the elder would serve the younger. (Gen. 25:23). In other words, God distinguished between the firstborn and the first son. Esau was the firstborn, Jacob was the first son. Same thing he did with Manasseh and Ephraim, and same thing he did with Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was the firstborn, Isaac was the first son. It’s called the scissors effect – the crossing of hands in blessing. God didn’t need Jacob and Rebekah’s help to bring his promise to pass. Just as he doesn’t need your self-help to bring his promise to pass in your business. He’s more than able to bring his own word to pass. And we see the consequences of self-help in the case of Isaac and Ishmael. The consequences are still with us today. In modern times, Ishmael has been at war with Isaac for the past 67 years. That war has been going on for over 5,000 years! And Ishmael is troubling the whole world today.

Are there consequences for deceit and violation of ethical boundaries?

Rebekah assisted Jacob in deceiving Isaac. In fact she conceptualised the whole thing. But she paid a terrible price. She never saw Jacob again till she died. Her initial thought was for him to go away until Esau calmed down. She said she would send for him to come back when the coast was clear. Well, Esau never calmed down and the coast was never clear. She died without ever setting eyes on her beloved son again.

Sometimes we pause the tape of human history too soon. Paused too early, it would seem Jacob and Rebekah got away with their shenanigan. But the truth is, neither got away with it. They both paid a price. Jacob met his match in his uncle Laban. Laban already had a reputation for love of money. The Bible says that once he saw the nose gold and the chunky gold bracelets Abraham’s servant gave Rebekah he ran to go and welcome the man. He could smell money a mile off. The man loved money. The price Jacob paid was huge. So much emotional trauma. Having been forced to marry a woman he never wanted, the children of the unloved Leah, with the concubines, who were equally unloved – set about eliminating the children of Rachel. It’s why Joseph insisted the brothers bring Benjamin. He wanted to be sure he was still alive.

Given all we now know, it shouldn’t come as a shock to us that the children of Jacob killed an animal to create forensic impression Joseph was dead. Jacob had deceived his own father by killing an animal for impersonation too. Jacob killed goat to deceive his father, his children killed goat to deceive him.

There are consequences to violation of ethics. There are consequences to ripping people off. The Bible says in Proverbs 20:17, “Stolen bread tastes sweet, but it turns to gravel in the mouth.” It’s either you’re going to have terrible indigestion, or you’re going to get broken teeth. Either way you pay. You’ll have to spew it out.

You can do business with integrity and succeed with integrity. And you can do business without a compromise of your values, especially as a Christian. There are three things you need to do if you want to do business without compromise: (1). You must develop a power network. (2). You must focus on excellence and (3). You must build a notable brand. The political aspect of business is all the networking and schmoozing. Who you know matters in business. Know people. Network. Attend functions. People do business with who they’re comfortable with, who they’re familiar with, not necessarily who’s best. But if you don’t know anyone humanly powerful, at least know God. He knows everybody. He’ll make introductions for you, open doors for you. He’s your most important and most powerful network.

But you must be really good at what you do too, so good you’re in demand. That changes the balance of power. It’s important to be professional. Professionalism is key. Formalise your business processes. Respond with the highest level of capability. Be good. Be professional – reduce things to writing. After a meeting send a memo. Write letters to make demands, or to forward materials to clients. Be responsive. And do things properly. That’s professionalism, that’s excellence.

Develop expertise. It’s important to be known for something, to be known as a specialist in something. That way you have top of the mind recall when a need is being tossed around in a boardroom or corporate suite. You can’t be a general merchant, interior decorator, event planner, HR consultant and forwarding agent all at once, and all listed on one business card. Nobody will take you seriously. And you open yourself to that which your conscience may not be able to handle. You’re not competing on excellence. Everyone is doing you a favour in such a scenario. Don’t be enterprise greedy. What are you really good at? Where is the money? Where is the market? Focus.

But then it’s critical to develop a strong brand. You’re not going to do so overnight. You build a brand with quality and integrity. You can’t have a brand without quality. When you’re known for professionalism and integrity it invariably separates you from the rest of pack. And that protects you.

By brand building I’m not talking about design of logo. Every business has a logo but not every business is a brand. A brand is also not about advertisements or promotions only. It’s a whole lot of things in cooperation, including human resources. Without a good product for example, there’s no brand proposition.

But there’s also something called brand integrity. Brand integrity has to do with the values of the brand. And there’s such a thing as product integrity. If you manufacture analgesic, we must naturally assume your product can cure headache. If your product can’t cure headache it can’t be an analgesic. But then there’s the issue of consistency. Your analgesic must cure headache consistently. Consistency is key. Without consistency the integrity of the product will fail. It’s why you have standards. Standards help us achieve consistency. But suppose you put up a billboard and on your billboard you claim your analgesic can cure headache FAST. That’s what you call a brand promise. Your analgesic must not only cure headache, it must cure headache FAST, and it must cure it fast consistently.

And so integrity is at the heart of the brand. It’s why I said branding is not just about logo and advertisements. Those are visual and marketing elements. We’re talking about the quality of what you put out, the promises you make, your professionalism, the competence of your staff… All these are brand elements. A brand is a complex.

Learn to fulfill your word. The reason God’s brand is so strong is because he fulfills his word, consistently. When next you read the word of God to that effect realise you’re reading God’s brand proposition.

I do hope the foregoing has been useful to you. I wish you the best in all your endeavour.

Thank you and God bless!


Delivered at Enterprise Development Week of The Elevation Church, Lekki Phase 1, Lagos