Calling, the Electric Lamp & Personal Destiny

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In the film Magnificent Obsession (1954) Rock Hudson (as Robert Merrick) and Otto Kruger (as Edward Randolph) hold two of the starring roles. The story begins by showing how self-absorbed Robert Merrick is. One day Merrick comes to Randolph’s house late at night totally drunk. The next morning as Merrick is trying to deal with his hangover, at what Randolph must see as an opportune time, he discusses with Merrick the idea of personal destiny.

A clip of this short conversation can be seen on YouTube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MBRrzlvxK4

In this clip Edward Randolph asserts to Robert Merrick that he can “establish contact with the source of infinite power” and thereby fulfil his personal destiny.

He uses an electric lamp as analogy: The lamp is designed to give light, but until the switch is turned so that the lamp is connected with the electric generators at the power plant, it cannot do what it is designed to do. But, when it makes contact, it will do what it was meant to do, i.e., give light.

How does a person establish contact with the source of infinite power? Randolph directs Merrick to be of real service to people; find people who need help and help them but always in secret. Never let it be known and never ask to be repaid. Keeping it secret is the most important part of the belief. If the electric power lines are not protected by insulation, the power will be dissipated. The same thing goes for us. Keeping good deeds in secret is like insulating the power of your personality.

Randolph asks Merrick, “Isn’t there anything in the world that you need that you haven’t been able to get in the ordinary way?” Merrick’s reply, “Not a thing…except I’d like to square myself with Helen Phillips. But if I help some poor joker, why does it follow that she’s going to listen to me?” Randolph replies, “I think you will be surprised as what follows after trying this way of life.”

Merrick says that if it as simple as all that he will certainly give it a chance. Randolph retorts, “It’s not something you can just try out for a week like a new car you know.” If Merrick thinks he can feather his own nest with it, he should just forget it! Besides, this is dangerous stuff. One of the first men who used it went to the cross at the age of 33 (an allusion to Jesus Christ).

This conversation is the turning point in the film and becomes the basis of the essential story question answered by the film, i.e., the magnificent obsession. If Merrick uses Randolph’s advice, will he be able to square himself with Helen Phillips? Will he truly succeed like Randolph promises? It takes a few years of Merrick using Randolph’s advice, follows his obsession to serve (primarily Helen Phillips) in secret, but eventually the story question is answered. He squares himself with Helen Phillips and he gets much more in the process.

Assign students to watch this short clip from the film or show the clip in class. Engage in discussion using the following questions as the starting point:

• How do you react to Edward Randolph’s analogy of the electric lamp and the connection with infinite power?
• Do you believe that each person has just one personal destiny?
• As you understand the biblical idea of calling, how true to this idea of calling is Edward Randolph’s belief?
• In what way is selfless service to others, done in secret, the way to understand or employ one’s calling? Do you agree with the analogy of having to insulate yourself from the accolades that might come from serving others in order to continue to have the power?
• Why must selfless service be done in secret in order for it to have the power that Randolph describes?
• In the film story, the acts of selfless service that Merrick does (not shown in the clip) are in addition to his usual work as a surgeon, yet nothing is said in the story about his work as a surgeon fulfilling his destiny. It is the things that he does outside his work that fulfils his destiny. Is this an accurate way to portray the biblical ideal of calling? Couldn’t one argue that his work as a physician also had the potential of fulfilling his destiny?
• Isn’t there a risk that selfless service of the kind that Randolph describes will invite more requests for service and in the process encourage people to take advantage of you?

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General Motors Fires 15 Employees After Recall Scandal

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Here is an interesting story that hit the national news. You might find in it rich opportunities to discuss matters of faith and management with your students.

 

The story was repeatedly in the news from February through June, 2014. At least ten years prior to 2014 owners of Chevrolet Cobalt cars complained that there was a problem with the vehicle’s ignition switches, a problem which caused the engine to switch off without warning. When the engine shut off, the safety air bags were disabled and the driver lost control of steering.

 

More than a score of accidents had been documented including 54 frontal-impact crashes 13 of which proved to be fatal. According to an investigation by the New York Times the faulty ignition switch was just one of several problems that had plagued the Cobalt from its release.

 

It took GM almost a decade to correct faulty ignition switch for Cobalt owners. According to documents released on April 11, 2014 by the US Congress House Energy and Commerce committee investigating the General Motors recall, GM executives, including the new Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, knew about the problem by October, 2012 which was prior to the recall in February, 2014. During testimony, Ray DeGiorgio one of the engineers stated that he did not know of an authorization to redesign the faulty ignition switch, yet documents were produced bearing his signature authorizing the redesign. In mid-April, 2014 Mr. DeGiorgio and another engineer were placed on paid suspension leave.

 

Questions still remained. Ms. Barra commissioned a team of independent investigators to get to the bottom of the matter. In May, 2014 the investigators produced a 325 page report for GM’s Board of Directors.

The report can be found at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website:

http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/NHTSA+Electronic+Reading+Room+(ERR)

 

Engineers at GM knew about the faulty switch as early as 2004 on Cobalt and other models. Customers complained that the engine simply quit and the vehicle kept moving but drivers were able to maintain control. In fact, at the early stages of production it was known that there was a problem with the ignition switch: The engine would simply turn off without warning. Various committees discussed the matter before 2006. Engineers knew that if the ignition turned off while the car was driving, the car might go out of control. What they apparently did not know was a fundamental fact: If the ignition switch cuts off, the air bags will not deploy. This element in the design had a purpose, i.e., engineers did not want people sitting in parked cars (with the engine off) to be injured by air bags deploying. Engineers consider the engine cut-off while moving as a customer inconvenience rather than a safety defect issue. Because of this, the problem did not receive much attention.

 

When reports of crashes, some of them fatal, became known by GM engineers, it was known that air bags had not deployed. Engineers considered this a mystery and could find no explanation for it. Apparently no one thought of the simplest cause: No ignition power means no air bags.

 

Somewhere during the process the engineer who had designed the faulty switch, changed the design but did not communicate this to anyone. A result of this was that engineers were baffled why some models of the Cobalt did not have the ignition switch problem while other (as it turned out, earlier) models did. The engineers didn’t do the simple investigative task of taking apart one of the faulty switches and compare it with one of the switches that had not failed.

 

The increased cost of the redesigned switch over the cost of the original switch was less than $1.00. The cost to GM of the recall of 2 million vehicles is in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

 

As the investigator’s report states on p. 2, “Although everyone had responsibility to fix the problem, nobody took responsibility.”

 

To try to bring closure to this unsavoury process, top-level leaders issues additional recalls for other defects in GM products. After receiving the report produced by the independent investigation team, GM top-level leaders fired 15 employees. Among these are the vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, five corporate lawyers, the liaison with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the director of safety and vehicle and crash worthiness, engineers and others.

 

Discussion Questions

This situation experienced by GM offers an opportunity for the instructor to discuss ethical managerial issues with students. Here are some starter questions:

  • The June 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal story on the scandal says that it was the GM corporate culture which is responsible for the failure of GM personnel to recall the unsafe Cobalt (and other models).  Mary Barra, GM chief executive, called the problem a pattern of incompetence and neglect. If we assume, as is sometimes taught in business schools, that corporate culture “flows downhill” from top-level leaders to front-line employees, why were not more GM top-level leaders fired for maintaining a culture of incompetence and neglect?
  • If engineers knew that air bags do not deploy if the car is parked and the engine is off, how could they not know that air bags will not deploy when the ignition switch involuntarily cuts off?
  • Given how GM’s internal investigators handled the situation in 2004-2014, is there a basis on which we can sat that the top-level executives knew that there was a pattern of incompetence and neglect? Isn’t such a pattern known only in retrospect after a problem has revealed the pattern?
  • During the time period 2004-2014 GM issued more than one recall for safety-related issues on its vehicles. Since the faulty ignition switch was not classified as a safety issue, there was no recall. How can managers at any level find “patterns of incompetence and neglect” when many things seem to be working just fine?
  • Is GM’s action of firing 15 people simply a way to deflect public attention away from the more complicated organizational culture management problems?
  • Do you think it was fair to fire so many people given what the external investigation found?
  • Under what circumstances, if ever, is it appropriate to fire someone just to make an example of them to the rest of the company?
  • How might Christian managers, engineers and lawyers handle this situation differently from nonChristians?
  • It appears that no progressive discipline process was used in this ignition switch scandal and the subsequent firing of employees. Is this a case of letting public opinion trump internal policy? If GM has a progressive discipline policy in place, might the fired employees in this case have legal grounds to file a wrongful termination claim against GM for not using the policy?
  • Shouldn’t the Christian avoid firing someone unless the person does something really bad? What was so bad about classifying the faulty switch a customer inconvenience rather than a safety issue?
  • If engineers claim that they didn’t realize the air bags would not deploy if the ignition switch cut off without warning, is this any reason to fire them?
  • On what basis might it be argued that the Christian leader has an obligation to show love to employees by keeping them, but instead giving them verbal or written warnings (steps that are usually taken during a progressive discipline process)?
  • If GM top-level leaders want to change the corporate culture as a result of this scandal, is this possible if some people are not let go? 

Engaging Students in Dialog About Calling

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Just a reminder about this blog: My goal is to provide two postings per month. I know this is not much. Some bloggers post things on a daily (or more frequent) basis. I have other responsibilities and do not want to promise something I cannot deliver on a consistent basis.

Last week I was in Holland, MI. I was there on invitation to participate in the NetVUE scholarly resources project seminar “Integrating Vocation Across Diverse Fields of Study.” http://www.cic.edu/Programs-and-Services/Programs/NetVUE/Pages/Integrating-Vocation.aspx NetVUE is a grant-funded (Lilly Pharmaceuticals) project managed by the Council of Independent Colleges.

Teaching Idea. Here is one idea for how to raise the issue of calling. This activity can be done in a class or in a retreat dedicated to exploring calling and vocation. Raising such a discussion may spark an interest on the part of specific participants to visit you in your office to explore calling and vocation one-on-one. Divide the participants into small groups. Show a series of images that are related to various occupations. For examples, the images could be of a physician, nurse, construction worker, visual artist, bus driver, attorney, truck driver, retail clerk, university professor, business executive, musician, assembly line manger, assembly line worker, restaurant server, janitor, preacher, farmer and so forth. Images such as these can be found many places on the Internet. For each image displayed, ask the small groups to:
• Develop a short one sentence description of the higher purpose of this job. The higher purpose should be related to what that job does for the greater good of society.
• Abstract out of the larger purpose a verb that describes a higher-order community or societal function that is being carried by persons in that particular job. For examples, nurses might be fulfilling the community role of “healing.” Attorney might be fulfilling the communal function of “advocating.”
• Describe the types of persons suited to fulfil the larger purpose and higher-order societal function. Suitability can be discussed in terms of personality traits, character traits, virtues, temperaments, abilities and interests. Ask participants to name specific persons (fellow participants) who are likely to make a positive contribution to the greater good of society by fulfilling the higher-order societal function?
• Give small groups note papers and small envelopes to write a note of encouragement to one or more fellow participants encouraging them to pursuit a life course that contributes to the higher purpose of the job by providing the higher-order community or societal function. Put the notes into envelopes and deliver them to participants.
• Ask for volunteers to read and respond to the notes they received from fellow participants.
• Encourage participants to continue the discussion later. When someone mentions what major they are “taking” or what “job” they hope to get after graduation, an informal discussion can follow regarding the bigger purpose, the higher-order function involved and the type of person suited to provide this for society.

In each chapter of the textbook Management: A Faith-based Perspective I included a short section called “Who Cares?” This section, in part, engages thinking about some of the larger purposes of management in serving the greater good of society. And, in Chapter 15 (pp. 483-517) I address the topic of calling. The materials in the textbook do not exhaust what can be explored with students.

Several questions emerged during our seminar that I thought I would post here to stir up your mind. Some of these questions may be appropriate for undergraduate students who have had practice thinking about calling. They may also be appropriate for graduate students and fellow faculty members who are interested in exploring calling and vocation.
• If calling is closely related to who we are and if who we are is constantly changing, self-knowledge always lags behind. Is calling something that can be discerned prospectively or only developed and recognized only retrospectively?
• Is calling developed knowingly or unknowingly?
• Is there just one calling or are there multiple callings?
• If a person loses their job, gets sick and cannot work or chooses to stay at home and care for family, what is calling to such a person? This activity can be done in a class or in a retreat dedicated to exploring calling and vocation?
• In what way is calling more about “how to be” rather than “what to do?”
• Why is it easier to talk about calling in some academic disciplines (Humanities) than others (Sciences)?
• Is calling merely an individual matter that takes place as an inner psychological experience or is it also a community experience? If it is also a community experience, how does the community participate in the discernment of a person’s calling? How does the community participate in the development of a person’s calling?
• If calling is something more than the choice of a job or career, how can professors engage students in dialog about these “more” dimensions of calling at a time when students are concerned about choosing a major that will lead to getting a job?
• How does calling change, if at all, over the life course?
• How might calling be described as narrative? How can a person come to understand the narrative of their life?
• How can a person redeem a calling if life choices result in taking the person away from what they should be?
• Given the developmental issues that college students experience, what can we reasonably expect to accomplish in terms of the exploration of calling with 18 to 22 year olds in the context of 4 to 6 years of higher education?
• How should professors talk with students about calling who come asking What major should I take? or What job or career should I prepare for? or What jobs can I get if I study in your academic department?
• What are the best ways that college and university professors can engage undergraduate students in the process of considering their calling?
• What behaviours of professors (in class and outside of class) signal to students that you are open and interested in exploring the bigger questions of calling with them?

One of the resources our seminar group is creating is a book designed for college and university professors who have an interest in engaging students in the conversation about calling and vocation. The book won’t be finished until 2015.

A Coward’s Way Out?

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A Coward’s Way Out?

Here is an interesting event that happened recently which you can bring to your students for discussion and debate. Based on my experience in the classroom, it has high potential for sparking active learning among students.

 

You might think about assigning your students to watch the YouTube video the day before the class period when you discuss and debate the issues. (Click on the link above) Ask them to discuss the event with their friends before coming to class.

 

On June 7, 2014 a horse by the name of California Chrome participated in the famed Belmont Stakes (NY) horse race. The Belmont race is the longer of the three Triple Crown races at a mile and a half. A horse that is better at a shorter race might not do as well at the longer distance. Because California Chrome had won both the Kentucky Derby (KY) and the Preakness Stakes (MD), it qualified to race for the coveted “Triple Crown” trophy. The last Triple Crown winner was the horse Affirmed in 1978.

 

Expectations were high. Most experts and most people placing bets were anticipating a win by California Chrome. Bummer! The horse came in fifth during the Belmont race. After the race, Steve Coburn the disappointed, enraged co-owner seemed eager to talk to the national media. At first he states that California Chrome just doesn’t have it in him during the race. Then his emotions kick in. He rails against the owners of other horses who skip the Derby and the Preakness in order to race a more rested horse in New York’s Belmont. Coburn snorted, stabbing his finger at no one in particular on camera on national television, “It’s not fair to the horses!…This is a coward’s way out!” 

 

The YouTube video captures the intensity of his emotions. At one point his wife attempts to intervene (she is standing behind him), but he quickly silences her so that he can complete his rant. The incident creates an opportunity for thoughtful Christian managers (and management students) to consider several questions. Here are the questions that have come to my mind:

 

  1. Initial response to the controversy.
    1. Is Steve Coburn correct? Is it a coward’s way out to rest a good horse during the Derby and the Preakness saving the horse for the Belmont to be a spoiler?
    2. Is it just smart competitive tactics (if you want to win at least one of the three Triple Crown races)?
    3. Do some research on the exact wording of the Triple Crown rule that Coburn referenced. Is the rule fair or unfair?
    4. Is Steve Coburn’s appeal to fairness to the horses really the core issue at stake? Does he really care about the well-being of the horses? If he did, why would he race his horse in all three Triple Crown races?
  2. The Prophet’s Paradox. The time that seems best to highlight an injustice is right when it occurs. But, highlighting an injustice right when it occurs, when the emotions are running high, leaves the prophet open to criticism for exhibiting “sour grapes.” Because of this hearers can easily discount the prophet’s message.
    1. If you believe that you have suffered an injustice, how do you know when is the best time and the best forum to air your grievances?
    2. How can the person who feels compelled to speak out about something that is unfair convey the passion and at the same time avoid criticism of being a sore loser?
    3. Who is better to speak prophetically regarding an injustice in an organization: The one who “has a horse in the race,” i.e., the one who has suffered an unfair policy, or the one who “has no horse in the race”, i.e., an impartial third party?
  1. Public Relations work of an organizational liaison. One of the roles of a manager is to be a liaison with outside organizations. When caught in the middle of a high-intensity emotional response to something that is beyond your control, how do you prevent yourself from ranting in a way that you might later regret? How do you recover if you blurt something out for a wider audience to hear and then realize that what you said and how you said it is sparking controversy? When is the best time to talk about something that seems unfair?
  2. Playing by the rules while trying to change the rules. One could argue that Steve Coburn and his co-owner both knew the rules of how the Triple Crown competition works. After all, how many years has the Triple Crown trophy been offered?
    1. Is after the race really the appropriate time to air your grievances regarding a rule that you don’t like?
    2. If California Chrome had won the race, would we have expected Steve Coburn to expound on the virtues of the Triple Crown competition rules?
    3. If you talk to the higher authority (the Triple Crown rules committee) and this authority refuses to make a change, on what basis is it permissible to make your case to the general public?
    4. What is Steve Coburn assuming about the general public and its influence on the Triple Crown rules committee?
    5. How does a manager continue to play by the rules while at the same time attempt to change the rules?
    6. What is the appropriate higher authority to appeal to if the Triple Crown rules committee chooses not to make a rules change?
    7. Under what circumstances, if ever, would it be appropriate to make an emotional appeal to the general public on national television regarding a rule (or law, or regulation) that needs to be changed?
  3. Strategy Issues.
    1. Should a faithful believer (i.e., the Christian) invest cash in an asset (in this case, a race horse and training facility) whose purpose involves the direct support of a business model that depends on consumers taking high risks (gambling)? In other words, should the Christian own a race horse knowing that gambling is required in order to make money off the horse’s “work?”
    2. Might it be argued that every time a consumer engages in a transaction for a new, uncertain product, the consumer is taking a risk? If so, what makes it wrong to purchase a bet on a horse race but right to purchase something else that is uncertain?
    3. Why are humans on a continual quest for certainty?
    4. Is it wrong to attempt to reduce uncertainty? One could argue that managerial planning is an attempt to reduce uncertainty. How can it be wrong to reduce uncertainty by anticipating, as best as possible, the future contingencies?
    5. Were we created this way by God? If so, how does God expect the faithful person to manage the quest for certainty in an uncertain world?

The Purpose of this Blog

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The primary purpose of the blog is to support the efforts of other Christian management scholars who desire to bring issues of faith into their classrooms, those who have adopted my textbook and those who have not. Accordingly, the plan is to create two postings per month that contain information on selected management issues, debatable questions, current events in organizations that deserve thinking about (with students) from a biblical worldview, scriptural themes relevant to management and leadership and teaching ideas.

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“Managerial work ranges far beyond the technical level such as the mathematics of measuring productivity, calculating net present value, formatting the written proposal for a new strategic initiative, or the use of technical planning tools. Managerial work quickly delves into the larger questions of life at work related to relationships, values, significance, and meaning. Because of this the particular perspective one has can make a difference when considering managerial work and its impact on global commerce.”  (Management: A Faith-based Perspective, 2012, p. xv)

I assume that it matters to be aware of your perspective, particularly when the issues one must deal with touch on things in life and work that have meaning and where values are key influencing elements. In a follow-up blog I will address the other assumptions on which this blog (and the textbook) is based.

Publisher’s Website

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Publisher’s Website

ISBN 9780136058342

This textbook is designed for Christian colleges and universities that are committed to integration of faith and learning in the business curriculum. It is a full-length, peer-reviewed text (by 30 scholars from a variety of denominations) covering the standard “principles of management” topics including the following:

Chapter 1: Introduction to Management
Chapter 2: Management History
Chapter 3: External and Internal Environment
Chapter 4: Cross-Cultural Management
Chapter 5: The Manager and Moral and Social Responsibility
Chapter 6: Planning and Decision Making
Chapter 7: Strategic Thinking
Chapter 8: Organization
Chapter 9: Human Resources Management
Chapter 10: Communication
Chapter 11: Motivation 
Chapter 12: Leadership
Chapter 13: Change, Power, and Conflict
Chapter 14: Managerial Control and Accountability
Chapter 15: Spirituality, Faith, and Management

Chapter Appendix: Assumptions in the Field of Management
Appendix A: Selected Hebrew and Greek Words Relevant to Managers
Appendix B: Occupations Mentioned in the Bible
Appendix C: Technology in the Bible
Appendix D: The Christian as Manager and Leader: A Small-Group Study Guide

Cases:
Case 1 – The J.M. Smucker Company Culture
Case 2 – The Burger War: In-N-Out Burger
Case 3 – eHarmony.com
Case 4 – The New Fitness Club
Case 5 – R. W. Beckett Corporation: Corporate Culture
Case 6 – Cardone Industries: Chaplain Program
Case 7 – Ethics, Decision-Making, and Responsibility: Tough Call Knowing Someone Loses
Case 8 – Coping with Scandal: Individual Redemption and Organizational Recovery
Case 9 – Choice of an Executive Assistant
Case 10 – How Gay Friendly Should Your Workplace Be?

Professors: to receive a review copy, contact your Pearson representative.