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Zebulon and Issachar: Closing the Chasm Between Business Strategy and Execution

10/02/2013 02:12 pm 14:12:13 | Updated Dec 02, 2013

The concluding section of the Torah includes Moshe's last speech, given during his final day on earth. Before departing, Moshe blessed the 12 tribes, including the Zebulon and Issachar, with a single sentence: "Rejoice, Zebulon, in your journey; Issachar in your tents" (Deuteronomy 33, 18).

The famous medieval commentator Rashi explains that the Zebulon and Issachar tribes struck a special deal: Members of the Zebulon would bring bread, conducting business that leveraged its location on the seashore, while the Issachar stayed in their tents studying Torah and sharing that knowledge with the Zebulon. This arrangement made the Issachar responsible for creating the model of an ideal life, according to God's instructions in the Torah, while the Zebulon were charged with implanting this way of living in the mundane world. In other words, the Issachar tribe created the business model, and related corporate strategy, while Zebulon executed that model in practice.

In Moshe's blessing, he mentioned the Zebulon first, despite Issachar being older and immersed in the holiness of Torah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains this apparent contradiction by noting the Zebulon did business with faith, realizing the ideal model of Torah in the practical world. Through their actions, the Zebulon fulfilled the fundamental purpose of God's world creation: bringing morality and spirituality to the mundane. Because the Zebulon tribe realized this ideal of Torah, Moshe blessed it first, presenting a new definition of leadership based on implementing spiritual ideals in daily life. The Zebulon tribe embodied this vision of leadership by expressing the Torah ideals defined by the Issachar.

In today's world, as for the Zebulon and Issachar, the success of business strategy lies in implementation: Brilliant concepts and elegant strategies remain useless until they bring measurable value to customers. The leadership model presented by the Zebulon requires customer-facing personnel to lead with faith and inspiration that goes beyond commission checks alone. Real leadership implies the understanding and ability to embrace vision, strategy, and execution.

To use the words of Moshe, "rejoicing in their journey" means modern leaders should serve as a source of inspiration to customers and partners. According to this vision of leadership, the CEO must shape business strategy while delivering on execution by leading sales. The best CEOs do not stay behind in "Issachar tents," meaning their corner office at headquarters, but bring business strategy to life by engaging actively with customers. This practical concept of leadership also shapes the business strategy itself.

Moshe blessed the Issachar to "rejoice in their tents" while studying Torah. Rashi explains the significance of this phrase: Issachar scholars would periodically leave their tents to check the ripeness of barely and the maturity of fruits on trees. To ensure the harvest would be ready by the festival of Passover, Torah scholars would sometimes add an extra month to the year.

This story demonstrates that the Issachar's Torah was part of life, rather than an ideal concept disconnected from the real world. Issachar scholars understood practicalities of the agriculture realm and their decisions supported business rather than just regulating it. Members of the Issachar tribe gained joy and satisfaction from observing the realization of their Torah study in the real world, observing how their conceptual model supported agriculture and transformed reality.

The Harvard Business Review explains that separating strategy and execution is a false dichotomy in today's rapidly changing technology world. Business strategists, like scholars from the Issachar tribe, must go out to the fields, to shape and reshape their strategy based on continuous feedback, an interactive process, and constant dialog.

Those responsible for execution, like the Zebulon and modern customer-facing staff, must fully understand and embrace the strategy to convey the message to customers and provide meaningful feedback to strategists. Working directly with customers is the best way to learn what works, or does not, while identifying emerging trends and innovations. The Zebulon and Issachar teach us that true partnership closes the chasm between strategy and execution.