The Secret of Success – September 23, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2018

Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; Psalm 54

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
take our moments and our days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Jeffery Skilling was a man convinced of his own superiority. When he applied to Harvard Business School, his interviewer asked him if he was smart. His reply can’t be quoted in full from the pulpit, but suffice it to say that he let the interviewer know that he didn’t just think he was smart—he thought he was really smart. Bolstered by his fantastically sturdy ego, Skilling pushed past the competition to rise to the top of corporate America, graduating from the top 5 percent of his class at Harvard, excelling at the landmark consulting firm McKinsey and Company, and finally landing at a place repeatedly named one of America’s “best companies to work for” and  “America’s most innovative company” by Fortune magazine: a little company called Enron.

As Enron’s President and COO, Skilling played a key role in setting the tone for the company’s culture. Inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, Skilling believed that human beings are innately wired to be aggressive and greedy and thought that such instincts could be harnessed effectively for the financial success of the company. He devised a system called the Performance Review Committee, in which twice each year a panel of managers ranked every employee between 1 and 5 on a scale, with 1 being the best and 5 being the worst. The 10 percent of employees who scored the lowest were supposed to be fired. Inside the company, the Performance Review Committee was known informally as “Rank and Yank.”

Unsurprisingly, at Enron compassion was lacking and competition could be fierce. One energy trader recalled the environment this way: “if I’m on the way to my boss’ office talking about compensation,” he said, “and if I step on somebody’s throat on the way, that doubles it? Well, I’ll stomp on the guy’s throat…that’s how people were.” When California faced electricity blackouts in 2000, Enron traders laughed with glee as energy prices spiked because of spreading wildfires or because of their own sneaky efforts to manipulate the supply of power. Traders ridiculed poor grandmothers forced to pay prices they couldn’t afford. They wished for an earthquake. For the traders, it was all just business, and, like Skilling, the traders saw success in business as simply the survival of the fittest. The California energy crisis, one trader told another, “weeds out the weak people in the market. Get rid of ‘em and—you know what?—the people who are strong will stick around.”

While the traders’ aggression, for the most part, was naked and shameless, the aggression their corporate leaders displayed was subtler and more refined. The Enron executives sought achievement under the cloak of respectability and with the help of seemingly legitimate financial documents. They had tried to hide the true extent of Enron’s debt from investors with tricky and complex maneuvers so that the company’s stock price would continue to go up, but their efforts were fraudulent and illegal and soon enough they were caught. Enron’s stock, which had soared improbably for months and years, collapsed; the company went bankrupt; and Jeff Skilling, along with several of his counterparts, went to jail. Ultimately, author Bethany McLean explained, the players in the Enron saga “became victims of their own hubris, victims of their own greed.” “The fatal flaw,” professor Nancy Rapoport argued, “was the sense that brains and wiliness could outthink the way the system will eventually work.”

When Jesus tells us that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all, we tend to assume that he is making a lofty, idealistic assertion about proper ethical values, about how God or some other authority will judge our attitudes and behaviors from a distant, objective vantage point. But maybe Jesus’ approach is more grounded in the real, human world than we typically give him credit for; maybe Jesus is offering us some practical advice.

After all, peoples’ problematic antics often catch up with them. “Where there is envy and selfish ambition,” James writes, “there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”  Jeff Skilling and the other figures in the Enron drama are not the only ruthless individuals in the world who have received their comeuppance. Think about the scenes you’ve witnessed at your office or among your friends or in your family. Maybe you’ve seen it at church or at a club or at your child’s school. When someone is rude or sneaky or aggressive, others remember; when one person cuts another off or stomps on another’s throat, people notice. The offender’s power and prestige may protect them for a while, but in the end circumstances usually require them to learn their lesson or at least face the consequences of their actions.

I know that the bad guys don’t always lose. Many of those who were involved in Enron’s fall were not held completely accountable for what they did, and the financial crisis of 2008 showed that financial deception and greed still occurs and still goes unchecked. I know too that the good guys often suffer unfairly. There was a plenty of collateral damage when Enron went bankrupt. But I have faith that on the whole misconduct cannot persist forever, that in time the chickens come home to roost. And I also trust that seeking peace, being gentle, and putting others first can reap real dividends.

The University of Virginia business professor Edward Hess has studied a variety of what he calls “high-performing” organizations, including Home Depot, Starbucks, and the Marine Corps. He argues that the most effective leaders are servant leaders. By now, the concept of servant leadership has become a cliché, but I think there remains some value for us in it. Servant leaders, according to Hess, are kind. They treat their employees with respect. They cherish the Golden Rule. Servant leaders are also humble. “They fight elitism in themselves and in their organizations,” he writes. “Servant leaders do not think they are better than the people that they lead.” Hess believes that organizations headed by servant leaders are not just more ideal from a moral perspective; they are also more successful in achieving what they set out to accomplish. Being a servant of others, in other words, is not just foolish idealism; it’s also good strategy.

The path of Jesus is not an easy one. It opens one up to the possibility of betrayal, of humiliation, and of loss. But it ends in resurrection, in the final triumph of the vulnerable, the generous, and the good. Jesus may have been rejected and killed, yet we are still worshipping him here today. To follow Jesus we must learn to manage the cravings that are at war within us, that cause us to argue with each other about who is the greatest, that keep us from all that is peaceful and gentle and wise. Jeff Skilling and his colleagues at Enron were smart and capable and industrious, but they could not manage their cravings—their insatiable greed, their unwieldy aggression, their uncompromising conquest to be the best. Their cravings were their downfall. What are you doing to manage your cravings, to keep your soul in check? Could it be, paradoxically, that keeping yourself grounded is the most effective way of making yourself a success?

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