Studying shrewdness: Jacob’s legacy

Let’s continue our study of Jacob’s family line, recalling Jesus’ admonition that the people of the world are more shrewd in their context than we are. We should study and learn from their tactics, while not reproducing the motivations. In these two examples, the heart is certainly not admirable.

Episode 2b: Leah vs. Rachel

At the same time Jacob is the protagonist in the drama with Laban, he’s a secondary player in a battle of wits between two sisters who learned shrewdness from their father Laban (Gen 29:31-30:24). Placed in a competitive position by their father’s deceit, Leah and Rachel now play out an epic domestic battle over their husband’s love and attention, and the requirement their culture has placed on them to gain value by producing male children.

Redemptive lessons:

  1. Shrewd people recognize points of leverage. Leah and Rachel are brutal in their attacks on each other because they know each other so well. The same trait can work the other way as well. Rick Lawrence defined shrewdness as “expert application of the right force at the right time in the right place.” Expertise comes from familiarity, and these sisters certainly had that in spades.
  2. Shrewd people never stop with no. When God withholds the fruit of the womb from Rachel, she finds another way: offering her servant as a concubine. While Rachel’s act was selfish and rebellious, it’s not unfamiliar to Jacob, whose grandparents did the same thing (Gen 16). As I’ve said before, tenacity, resilience, creativity and resourcefulness are built into the megacompentency we recognize as shrewdness.
  3. Shrewd people are singleminded in their pursuit of a goal. They have clarity about what they want, and pursue it with passion. One reason many believers don’t practice the same art of shrewdness is that we don’t have a clear goal, and we’re not as committed to finding a way to get there as Leah and Rachel were.

Episode 3: Simeon and Levi vs. Shechem

The shrewdness gene goes completely out of control in this story from Genesis 34. Jacob, of all people, would curse his sons for their deception (Gen 49:5-7). While the clan camps outside the town of  Shechem, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by Prince Shechem. When the prince then asks to marry Dinah, the brothers agree, on the condition that all males in the city get circumcised. “While all of them were still in pain,” Simeon and Levi go into the city, kill all the males in the village, plunder their goods, wives and children, and rescue Dinah.

Is there anything redemptive we can apply from this brutal story?

  1. Shrewd people understand their adversary. Jacob’s sons recognize the lust and greed (Gen 34:23) of the people of Shechem and expertly pull those strings to convince them to do something radical: get every male circumcised. Like a good phone scam, they require a deposit in order to get all this wealth in return. We can also pay attention to the motivations of others. For instance, an innocently shrewd negotiator will match motivations of both parties so everyone wins.
  2. Shrewd people use empathy to advantage. Simeon and Levi attack at the point of greatest weakness and pain. How did Simeon and Levi understand the right moment? Through empathy; they were very familiar with the healing process of circumcision. We can also use study and personal empathy to find the right moment for action.
  3. Shrewd people find ways to lower defenses. Genesis 34:25 says Simeon and Levi also attack at the point of Shechem’s greatest sense of security. The dream of intermarriage and the resulting transfer of wealth slows down the men of Shechem. In this case, it was empty promises and deceit. But the same principle of finding the right moment and not pursuing a frontal attack can be applied innocently as well. Rather than try to convince someone of something when their resistance is highest, there are ways to lower their guard and win them over.

By the way, God can redeem curses and evil shrewdness. In Exodus 32, Levi’s descendants choose the Lord’s side even if it means opposing their brothers, and so Moses blesses them and sets them apart. In Numbers 3:12, God chooses the tribe to be his redemptive substitutes for the people of Israel, and makes them his priests.

So here’s the point: you can find redemptive lessons in any example of shrewdness, no matter how evil its application. It’s a matter of studying and flipping the story around. That was Jesus’ point. Where do you see shrewdness applied in your context? In your world? How can the story of Jacob and his extended family help you improve your skills at gleaning out the principles so you grow in shrewdness?

Shrewd Series

Falling ability

When I was learning to ski back when I was in high school, I was taught that the most important thing to learn is how to fall well. Now, there’s two ways to judge quality. When you’re on the ski lift, and you see someone wipe out spectacularly below you, you judge a good fall by factors like whether both skis and poles separate from the individual, what body parts hit snow at high speeds, number of twists, etc. When you’re the one falling, you use different parameters. You want to fall in such a way that your skis don’t twist and cause knee damage, that you don’t hit stationary objects, and that you are able to get up again. During the recent Olympics, we saw some people who knew how to fall. Do you remember Anja Paerson, the female downhill skiier who crossed the finish line on her face? She ended up getting bronze two days later. That was someone who knew how to fall.

I think what Michelle Braden would tell you is that leaders need to know how to fall. They need to be able to get back up, stiff and bruised as they are, and try again. When gauging leadership potential we need to consider, What is a young person’s ability to fail and then recover again? Do they understand how to do that? As I think about her question, “Do they understand the process to recover from failure?” I suspect most organizations don’t have any kind of articulated process for that. What they have instead is a track record. I heard recently about an executive in Orlando who very publicly blew it in managing a division of the company. The CEO took him under his wing and gently restored him and built up his confidence again. He is now CEO of a division of that company. How many people in the company watched that happen? I guarantee you there are leaders in that company who have followed that same model to restore others. And I guarantee you the young leaders and aspiring leaders in that company noticed.

So, I think there are three points that are worth discussing. First, stop and ask yourself: What is your organization’s track record for recovery from failure? What can you as a leader do to change or build on that track record?

Second, as established leaders, keep your eye open for failure. Look for young people who show fortitude and resilience in failure. We can look for those who can take the heat and handle pushback. We can look for those who can stand by a decision that blew up on them and not make excuses. We need to be quick to come alongside them and not let them stay down too long.

Third, take a moment to think: What was your first big failure? What lessons did you learn from it that you still apply today?

I like to warn graphic designers that a day will come when they would cost their company money because of a bad decision. If they are lucky, it will only cost the company hundreds. My first big mistake cost my company a couple of thousand. I remember getting the bank stationery back from the printer and picking up the first sheet of letterhead. It felt like it was printed on copy paper. I got a big knot in my throat. I had to go to the namesakes of our public relations firm and own my mistake — that I had trusted the recommendation of our print broker without verifying the paper myself. We of course reprinted the job. That situation ended up breaking my relationship with the printer that we had used for years, and I probably could have handled that situation differently. My boss never complained about the cost. But I’ll tell you this: I worked harder at my job after that point. I swore I would never disappoint my boss again. And to this day, I trust my vendors but verify everything.

Failure is great leadership development… if you know how to fall well.