In 1925 the publishing world was rocked by an up-and-coming advertising executive named Bruce Barton, who'd written a book called The Man Nobody Knows. The man in question was Jesus Christ, the "most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem," who had "picked up twelve humble men and created an organization that won the world."
Jesus, Barton wrote, was a prototype of the modern executive. He knew how to write copy, how to schmooze the crowd. When Christ came on the scene, there was no shortage of religions, but through a careful study of "psychology," He was able to create demand for his new faith; He knew, like any good salesman, that "with anything which is not a basic necessity the supply always precedes the demand." Besides having a precocious grasp of public relations, He was a management guru with an uncanny ability to motivate and inspire his employees: "Every one of His conversations, every contact between His mind and others, is worthy of the attentive study of any sales manager." Finally, Jesus was a man's man. Despite His prodigious work ethic, He was no "kill-joy"; He loved wine and parties; "no other public figure ever had a more interesting list of friends."
Despite the success of The Man Nobody Knows--among clergy as well as "New Era" businessmen--Bruce Barton had a nervous breakdown in 1928. (Later, he was elected to Congress, where he was one of the strongest proponents of isolationism in the House in the late 1930s.) But his genre still lives. Year after year, his themes are, ahem, resurrected by business writers who seek to enumerate the "most common problems in business" and "how Jesus would have solved them," to quote a recent title.
A spate of such theologically inclined management guides appeared in the 1990s. Some new authors, such as Laurie Beth Jones, who wrote Jesus CEO in 1995, are in advertising, just like Barton was. Others, such as Richard D. Phillips, author of last year's Heart of an Executive: Lessons on Leadership from the Life of King David, hold degrees in theology and work as "consultants." As guides on leading a moral life in the marketplace, these books, like Barton's, are worthless. Maximizing profit is the standard by which all else is judged; the implicit reason to listen to Christ is to raise revenue and productivity. But though the books have little of value to say on the troubled topic of "business ethics," they do provide some insight into the uneasy mind of the corporate manager. For beneath their truculent piety, these latter-day Bruce Bartons are sheepish and defensive. Their beloved management principles--leadership, hierarchy, stewardship--can't help but seem out of place in the new economy, hot on the pursuit of "Wow!"
It's true that organization men still act confident that Jesus knew how to build a business better than anyone. "By any measurement standard, the empirical evidence bears witness that the organization founded by Jesus is the most successful of all time. Ergo, Jesus Christ reigns supreme as the greatest manager the world has ever known," writes Bob Briner in The Management Methods of Jesus. What was His secret? For starters, He knew His position in the hierarchy. As Laurie Beth Jones puts it, "Jesus knew who his boss was, and kept in touch with him daily." A soulful man, He had a very positive self-image: "Jesus did not look back on the events of his life and say, 'Hmmm. I must have been the Son of God.' He declared himself to be the Son of God, and the proof followed." Dedicated and motivated, He could really get things done: "Jesus knew his mission statement, and did not deviate from it." Still--frat boys turned corporate lawyers might identify--He was no geeky grind: "Even with all Jesus had to accomplish during His short stay on Earth, He still took plenty of time off," says Briner.
Yet Jesus' real comparative advantage, all writers agree, was His knack for hiring. From Bruce Barton--who could hardly get over his amazement that Matthew quit being a tax collector to follow Jesus--to Bob Briner, management theorists wax rhapsodic about Christ's ability to pick a staff. As Briner writes, "Jesus chose his own disciples and did so carefully. True, one of the twelve betrayed him, but I wish I had been successful in selecting the right employee eleven out of twelve times." (This doesn't mean that present-day employers should feel constrained by any moral obligations to their own employees, of course. On the contrary, as Jones writes, workers should strive to love their superiors, come what may. She herself prays for the courage to "still love the people I have had to fire, and the ones who have had to fire me.")
But in an economy that's supposed to revolve around start-ups, stock options, and short-term gains, there's something quaint about the management writers' faith in stable bureaucracies; sometimes, a note of defensiveness can't help but creep into their praise. "Jesus did not run a democratic organization," insists Briner. "In these days, when nonauthoritarian leadership is lauded at every turn, it is important to note that no successful organization is ever built or maintained without strong ultimate authority." Writing about King David, Richard Phillips compares the truly dedicated leader to the opportunistic job-hoppers of Silicon Valley: "Far from the free agent of today, who hopes to build a career through an arm's-length commitment, David shared the fate and struggle of his people, Israel." Someday, the getrich-quick entrepreneur will face a Goliath of a new product line. And then, "it is not the short-sighted executive alone who pays the price. First there will come the kind of downsizing Goliath intended to enforce on Saul's army."
But can the Judeo-Christian model really be enough to inspire managers in today's lean, mean market? Won't absolute faith in a leader erode individual responsibility? Is Jesus Christ facing stiff competition from another prophet of profit? A sign that the West may be on its way out comes from Michael Roach, a Buddhist monk cum diamond magnate, who also runs a consulting outfit called the Enlightened Business Institute. His new book, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Strategies for Managing Your Business and Your Life, tells you how to turn your spiritual riches into millions of dollars. (His spiritual teacher had encouraged him to enter business: "Although the monastery was an ideal place for learning the great ideas of Buddhist wisdom, a busy American office would provide the perfect 'laboratory' for actually testing these ideals in real life.")
If meditation, simplicity, and vows of poverty come to mind when you think of Buddhism, you'll be surprised to learn in The Diamond Cutter that "the goal of business, and of ancient Tibetan wisdom, and in fact of all human endeavor, is to enrich ourselves--to achieve prosperity, both outer and inner." Buddhism, Roach writes, can provide a guide to business that is not only "right, but also the most profitable." Sometimes his suggestions are downright inspired: "A real estate deal like Andin International's acquisition of a large nine-story building on the West Side of Manhattan is a good example of hidden potential, or what the Buddhists like to call 'emptiness.'" Such synergism between ancient wisdom and big bucks in the here and now is what Enlightened Business is all about. Roach pitches his message at love children turned stockbrokers, Ben & Jerry wannabes. Admit it, he coaxes, "you'd like to make a million and meditate too."
But despite the hippie-dippy tone, Roach's "advice" is harsher than any of the platitudes about leadership in Jesus CEO. Whatever business problem the manager faces can be chalked up to lousy karma--in other words, it's his or her own fault. "Problem: Rents seem too high! Can't find a building to put that new branch location in. Solution: Make sure that you help others find places to stay when they need them. It might seem an oversimplification to say that refusing a bed to Aunt Martha when she came into town over the holidays could have anything to do with the failure of your multimillion-dollar branch to find a home, but it fits the rules we have laid out here perfectly." Or: "Problem: Capital investments like manufacturing equipment, computers, even vehicles tend to become quickly outmoded or unreliable. Solution: Stop being envious of other businesspeople and their businesses."
Where management guides culling Christ's teachings suggest that a strong leader can bear the blows of the marketplace, thereby saving his underlings, the radically solipsistic philosophy of The Diamond Cutter implies that all kinds of problems inherent to the modern economy are really reflections of the bad will of a company's employees. "Problem: The market and business atmosphere is chaotic; it seems to go up and down without any sense of logic. Solution: This kind of chaos is a result of a global intention, of wishing failure on others." Even troublesome pollution in third world countries (irritating on business trips) has its root cause in immoral sexual behavior in the company's home offices: "You have created the pollution."
The Diamond Cutter describes an ethos according to which each individual is expected to literally bear full responsibility for all aspects of the company's business environment, with no recourse to a leader and no obligations to subordinates--in other words, a theology tailor-made for the present-day corporate world. Though none of the religio-management books says anything about the real-life prestige of managers, over the past two decades, there's been an assault in company boardrooms and economics departments on the very concept of corporate management. Managers have been denounced as second-wave parasites on profits, grasping at money that isn't rightfully theirs, while shareholders have been glorified, their sacred knowledge underlying the allocation of all the economy's goods. Management exists only to serve the whims of investors--and more often than not, it seems to stand in the way of shareholder value. At the same time, the specter of the early 1990s--when thousands of middle managers saw their jobs evaporate--still stalks the cubicles. Maybe it's not surprising, then, that the you're-on-your-own philosophy of The Diamond Cutter should be in fashion. No more hierarchy, no more bureaucrats, no more leadership: Christ, like the rest of us, has been downsized. ¤