by Eddie Pipkin
Having written last week about the never-ending variety of leadership styles and management theories, I want to share a specific one this week. I was leading a discussion with my Tuesday morning Bible Study group, when we came across the iconic scripture from Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God” (NIV). I’ve seen the tenets of that verse used as personal vision statement, and I’ve seen them used as a proclamation of organizational vision, but on that morning, it occurred to me how well they work as a statement of management theory, and that was a thought I had never had before.
It makes sense as a way to frame decision making, and you will have your own stories of interactions with that oft-cited verse (which I highly encourage you to share in the comments section). It establishes core principles to live by as institutions (led by leaders) and as individuals:
- Pursue justice.
- Be merciful.
- Live with humility.
Many commentators and biblical scholars will point out that within the context of the minor prophet’s pronouncements – he had been chastising the leaders of Israel for their lack of faithfulness to the covenant and their failure to do right by the powerless – the first two provisions of the “what the Lord requires of you” directive involve people-to-people interactions, and the third provision involves our relationship with God. Of course, if humility is central to our relationship with our Lord, it’s pretty handy as a relationship strategy with our fellow human beings, too.
So, as an individual, I do what is right by people. (We have to adjust our attitude away from our common cultural wiring and its popular conception of justice being related to punishment and often vengeance. What Micah is talking about is standing up for the little guy.) In a broader sense, if we are dedicated to justice, we are dedicated to doing the right thing however and whenever we can. That means holding our peers accountable to fair and righteous outcomes, and from Micah’s perspective, it means paying special attention to be advocates for those with less power than ourselves. Micah’s words carry a strong protective sense.
As an individual, I am also called to practice mercy. Mercy, as noted in Micah, like justice, carries that overarching sense of protection, because mercy is an expression of compassion or forgiveness for someone whom we have the power to punish or harm (or judge – the difference between judgment and discernment being the key to the practice of mercy for Christians – shout out to Skye Jethani for that insight – discernment means choosing what is right based on our fidelity to our values, but judgment means that just because we disagree with a choice another person has made, they are somehow less than us – less smart, less good, less capable, less cool, less worth – which is not a Jesus-oriented calculation). Mercy, on the other hand, is a godly value. When we practice it, we advance the kingdom of love.
As an individual, I am also called to humility. This means an active practice of gratitude in my dealings with God and the world. I acknowledge the grace and blessings by which I am able to do what I am able to do and enjoy what I am able to enjoy (rather than celebrating my own presumably awesome skills), and I experience empathy by actively remembering that I, too, am a flawed, scarred, and imperfect human (“There but for the grace of God, go I”).
It’s helpful to consider the antitheses of these provisions. Looking at their opposites provides a dramatic illustration of what the anti-Micah life would look like:
- I look out for myself. I make decisions that benefit me, regardless of their impact on others.
- I show no mercy. Plenty of management creeds and sports strategies have argued explicitly for the mantra, “show no mercy,” as a path to winning. “Kill or be killed,” “eat or be eaten,” and “win at all costs” are some of the many Machiavellian catchphrases that undergird this philosophy that equates mercy with weakness. (Jesus understood the counter-intuitive power of mercy as strength.)
- I lean into my arrogance. I take the credit – all the credit. I condescend to others. I insist on my own way. I refuse to listen, and I make sure that everybody knows that mine is the only opinion that matters.
And yet, we have all worked with leaders who have been walking-talking manifestations of these anti-Micah attributes. Heck, if we’re being honest, many of us have BEEN these anti-Micah leaders at some point in our careers. It’s tied into our tendency to get lost in self-righteousness, a common ministry side-effect.
A leader who embraces Micah management principles, however, is a gift and a blessing to the teams he or she leads. They manage their organization and the individuals who make it possible with a keen eye to treating everyone with respect, fairness, and an attitude that nurtures their strengths while treating their inevitable mistakes with compassion and empathy. This is a leader who listens, who collaborates, who puts others before himself or herself. These are teams and organizations that thrive. The Micah Management System is a system of positivity and potential. It’s good vibes and a community of trust and mutual support.
We automatically read the three Micah directives and interpret them as values to be held in equal balance, which is a fine interpretation. However, it can be true that we may be stronger in our practice of one of the values at the expense of the others. My new and added insight as I read this biblical passage afresh involved treating each of these values as a focusing lens through which to refine our understanding of how we practice the other values.
- As I choose to pursue justice, am I remembering to practice mercy and proceed with humility?
- As I choose to practice mercy, am I remembering to do what is right, and am I proceeding with humility?
- As I focus on staying humble, am I also staying true to my commitment to do what is right and to practice empathy and compassion?
Those are subtle considerations, but they are important. We can get so caught up in making what seems to us critical just / righteous decisions that we lose all thought of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. We can become so enamored of our commitment to righting a perceived wrong that we forget to listen to the counsel of others or consider alternative solutions. We can get so engaged in an opportunity to forgive and restore someone that we gloss over the hard work of repentance and reconciliation (and again, in that process we can get big-headed and forget to listen to and acknowledge the multiple wounded players that are present in any conflict). We can even become so obsessed with being self-effacing and humble that we fail to take decisive action where decisive action is clearly called for. That’s not being a leader: that’s just abdicating our responsibility and using a godly attribute as an excuse.
By this “focusing lens” reading of the Micah provisions, each value informs and reinforces the others. We are careful and thoughtful about doing what we are doing. It’s worth remembering that the Micah provisions are based in love, the ultimate, Jesus-endorsed-and-demonstrated value that should drive all of our words and deeds.
In practicing these principles myself, I would note that I am not the first person to come up with the idea that the Micah verses make for good management practice. The idea popped into my head during our group time, but as I started work on the blog, I googled it. As Solomon long ago noted in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and it was highly unlikely that someone else hadn’t had this obvious insight into this touchstone phrase. So, in all humility and because it is the right thing to do, I share here a link to an excellent alternative take on this same idea from The Best Christian Workplaces Institute. They use a nifty triangle graphic to balance and link the values of “integrity, loyalty/caring, and humility,” which is a great riff on this idea. The practice of these institutional values, for them, is anchored in “courage / grace” and leads to this summary equation that I love:
JUSTICE + MERCY = TRUSTWORTHINESS.
They flesh that thought out like this:
The combination of integrity from doing justice and the committed love of mercy is trustworthiness and transparency. You need both integrity and love for trustworthiness to work.
They follow up with some great examples and a detailed analysis of their Micah-based values triangle, so check it out.
How are you doing at living out those Micah management values? Is it something that you consciously practice as an individual and a leader? How would you expand or tweak the thoughts we have put forward here about the practice of pursuing justice, mercy, and humility? For churches and congregations, these values can also act as an exemplary guide to setting the vision for the future and making day-to-day decisions. Churches should be community leaders when it comes to promoting justice, demonstrating mercy, and keeping it humble. Maybe we’ll explore that a little more next week. What do you think?