Last week, President Obama led the singing of "Amazing Grace," the first verse of which was composed by mariner John Newton after deliverance from a life-threatening storm off County Donegal, Ireland, in 1748. There are a number of interesting discoveries that arise from last week's event. One is that Barack Obama cannot sing. Another is that the author of this wonderful evangelical hymn continued working in the slave trade for another half dozen years after writing its first verse. But the one I want to concentrate on comes in the first two lines of the hymn:
Amazing grace! (How sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
A wretch! A worthless piece of humanity!
Now, this is one of Christianity's most enduring legacies - the idea that, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are "miserable sinners", and "there is no health in us." There is a huge gap between God and Man and it is only through God's personal intervention -- through Jesus Christ -- that we can become anything half-decent.
Harry Williams, the former Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, tells in his marvelous book Living Free how as a child of 10 or so, he was "perplexed by what seemed to me a most unfair illogicality. I was taught that the bad things we did were entirely our fault, while the good things were the result of God at work within us, and we could therefore claim no credit for them. The moral dice thus seemed very much loaded against us ... we were capable of evil but not of good ... what we examine ourselves to discover are the sins we have committed ... It is seldom suggested that we should discover the good things we have done (my emphasis). It is as if we were ... like hypochondriacs looking eagerly for every sign of illness while we disregard all manifestations of health."
But another type of Christianity had the opposite view about people
There is very little in the New Testament to support the "miserable sinners" view. The parables of Jesus -- such as that of the Prodigal Son, who wastes his father's inheritance on wine, whores and other riotous living, and yet is welcomed back with open arms by his Dad -- tell a very different story. Jesus is reported to have said that "the kingdom of heaven is within you." The Apostle Paul had a distinctly upbeat view of human potential. And the most popular evangelists of the second century, such as Marcion and Valentinus, were "Gnostic" Christians, teaching that men and women "came from the light" and had sparks of divinity incorporated in their spirit. It was only with the "proto-orthodox" bishops of the second and third century that a dimmer view of human nature came to prevail, cemented into the horrible doctrine of Original Sin a bit later on, by Augustine of Hippo (354-430).
According to Augustine, "Adam bound his offspring with the penalty of death and damnation ... down to the final and never-ending torment with the rebel angels ... the damned lump of humanity was lying prostrate, no, was wallowing in evil, it was falling headlong from one wickedness to another ..." I will cut Augustine off here, because it gets even more pornographic. Suffice it to say that Augustine's view of women was that they were even worse than men - he could not understand why the Almighty had not given Adam another man as a companion.
Augustine may have been, by modern standards, quite unhinged, and yet he was a brilliant theologian and probably had more influence on Western Christianity - and Western civilization - than any other writer in history. In her eloquent book A History of God, Karen Armstrong says that the doctrine of Original Sin "would become central to the way Western people would view the world ... A religion which teaches men and women to regard their humanity as chronically flawed can alienate them," especially, she says, "in the denigration of sexuality in general and women in particular."
The Correction - What People Are Doing Right
It seems to me, therefore, that we need to apply a massive correction factor to our usual rather jaundiced view of ourselves and other people. We should throw away our normal tendency to view ourselves as bad, and adopt the Gnostic view that we are basically good. Far from leading to depravity, this is likely to lead us to want to live up to the standards we believe we have. Children need to be discovered doing something right, and praised. They need to be told how good and brilliant they are - when they are. We should go easy on ourselves, our spouses, and our friends. For every time we allow ourselves to criticize anyone, we should praise them at least five times. If we adopt this rule, it will cut the amount of criticism drastically - and, in accordance with the 80/20 principle, since criticism becomes a rare thing, it will be noted and taken more seriously.
But here's the thing I want to examine in the rest of this blog -- how does this principle -- what we may call the principle of Praise -- apply to business? I want to say something less banal than that we should praise our colleagues more and criticize them less -- though that is a good start. So I reach again for the 80/20 principle to guide us. Oddly enough, it leads us back to Augustine, but then back even farther in time to the Gnostics.
Koch's Doctrine of Original Business Sin
Let's marry the principle of Praise to a famous and useful principle in business -- that of core competencies.
The valuable idea behind "core competencies" is that companies are really good at very few things -- if indeed they are really good at anything at all. Like individuals, companies need to concentrate on those few things. If possible, they should get rid of most of what they do. This too is consistent with the 80/20 principle. Most activities, most products, most customers, most suppliers, and, I hesitate to say it because it is not very nice, though it is usually true, most employees -- they are all generally of marginal importance at best in what makes the firm profitable, cash positive, and useful to the world. This, if you like, is Koch's theory of Original Business Sin: Most firms are damned because they try to do too much. Most people too. Companies and individuals should ideally only do what no other firm or person can do, or what they can do so much better or more cost-effectively than anybody else.
And yet, to put a positive spin on business and life, the most marvelous thing is when companies and individuals behave as if they are angels -- that they have a wonderful mission to realize the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Every person and every economic entity has the potential to do something truly fantastic.
They just have to discover what that is.
And then do it. That, and nothing else.
1. Believe you are an angel -- a wonderful person with a marvellous mission.
2. Praise people at least five times more than you criticize them. Remember, they too are angels.
3. Believe in your company's ability to do something fantastic -- or find a company that can.
4. If you run a business, define and realize its fantastic potential destiny.
5. Discover what you individually can do that is uniquely marvellous, and do it, or work towards being able to do it.