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Last night I sat on my chair in the den and at my 15-year-old son’s request watch a movie we hadn’t seen in years (by my chair I mean the one with the ottoman that no one else is allowed to sit in). As I slouched in my chair I was happy that we were watching the movie at home, and not at the local cinema where my feet would be firmly glued to the floor by the remnants of soda spills from long ago.

Watching the movie it occurred to me that Spiderman’s boss, J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle is a perfect example of what I always imagined a manager to be when I was growing up: a gruff, cigar chomping, get the job done without caring whose feelings were hurt, type of guy. Those managers lived by the rule “real bosses don’t ask for opinions.” Although I have to admit when Jamison moved to LA to become Assistant Police Chief Will Pope in the series The Closer, he also became a better boss.

All of the TV shows I remembered featured bosses just like Jameson. You remember the type, characters such as Alan Brady of the Dick Van Dyke Show or Larry Tate on Bewitched. Fox once even pushed that envelope further with My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss. In this show, graduates from major business schools competed for a $250,000 salary and the “honor” to work for a mean, despicable, SOB of a boss. The twist is there isn’t even a job involved, the “boss” was just a very good actor. Each week contestants were abused and humiliated for our amusement. They competed with each other so that the next week the archetype mean boss can abuse them further.
Though I have been out of work for over two years, for some reason, sitting in my chair, I began thinking about bosses. It was nice to realize that the prototypical boss, imagined as a child (and displayed in the new Fox show) is a not what I adopted as a style once I had become a manager. My management style was not like any of those grumpy stereotypes, not because of any formal training, as a manager I was always thrown into fire and told to do my best. Maybe it was the management training program that my parents had enrolled me. They schlepped me to it each Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday.

You see all of my management training was from an unusual source. In fact, all I really needed to know about being a manager (and an employee), I learned in Hebrew School. Management wisdom was not found in some human resources manual or executive self-help book it was all right there in Mr. Gefter’s Torah class. And it’s still there for all the people to look. These are the things I learned from my teachers in Hebrew school: 

  • Who you work with is more important that what you are making. Lot traded being close to his uncle Abraham for the fame and fortune of a judgeship in Sodom … eventually that turned out to be a dead end job.
  • Do not tolerate office gossip. Despite all of her good deeds during the exodus from Egypt, Miriam got in trouble for criticizing her boss (brother Moses) behind his back.
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate. The section of the Torah with the Ten Commandments is not named after the great revelation at Sinai, where God spoke to the entire Jewish people; it’s named after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. Why? Because that is where the Torah tells us: Yitro taught his son-in-law that if he doesn’t delegate, he would burn out. The Torah also uses seven different names for Moses’ father-in-law; Reuel, Jether, Yitro, Hobab, Heber, Keni and Putiel (I am telling you this to warn you not to take a check from the guy).
  • It’s OK for a boss not to know the right answer. When the daughters of Zelophe had asked Moses a real stumper about real estate and inheritance law, he didn’t try to fake his way through it, he just said I don’t know let me check with top management.
  • Stand up for what is right even if it is not popular. After the Golden Calf, Moses said whoever is with God come with me, the Levites answered the call, and for that, they got a big promotion out of it.
  • When a manager loses control of his people, then maybe its time for him to move on. Sure he hit the rock, but by the time God told Moses his mission was done, the Jewish slaves that he started with were dead. Their children had become a new nation, raised in the wilderness not under an Egyptian’s whip. Moses had a hard time relating to this group, calling them rebels. While the people loved their leader God know they needed fresh blood. God’s love was so strong that he told Moses that he was fired for the “sin” of hitting the rock — because he didn’t want to hurt his feelings by saying that had lost touch with the people.
  • Protect your people at all costs. We remember Abraham for trying to protect Sodom and Gomorrah, “even if there are only 10 good people.” He gave birth to nations. The only humans Noah tried to save were his own family and quite possibly, because of that, all nations were destroyed during his watch.
  • Protect yourself also. Jacob though he had an ironclad contract with Laban — he ended up with two wives telling him to put the seat down. David’s success made his boss Saul feel threatened. He ended up out of work (and almost dead). Most bosses are not like that, but you never know which ones are. Make sure to protect yourself and speak up, respectfully, when you feel that a boss is being hurtful.
  • Balance makes for better workers. The Torah tells us that employers and employees alike should take off one day a week, Shabbat. The purpose of this day is to lose touch with the work world, and those work pressures and worries in order to find balance in your life by getting in touch with your kids, family, and friends.
  • Probably the most powerful management lessons I learned in Hebrew School were about decisiveness and teamwork. Three thousand years ago, Moses and twelve tribes of freed slaves stood on the shore of the Red Sea bracing for an attack by the army of their former masters. As they began to pray, God said to Moses, enough praying … do something. Moses took action, leading the twelve tribes across the sea as one nation, proving that a decisive leader and a unified team can work miracles.

It has been more than 40 years since I went to Hebrew school, and even longer since the time of Abraham and Moses, but it still stands that God is one great manager of people and that the Torah would make a heck of an HR manual, and unlike Hollywood, you don’t have to pay residuals.

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