Grace, Stewardship, and Ruthless People

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‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’

Luke 16:2

The Face of Ruthlessness

The bottom line. The end result. The point of it all. The truth of the matter. At the end of the day. Ultimately. When we net it all out, get to the root, sum it up, and drive toward the heart, what we really want is the achievement of our aims. At work. At home. At school. On the field. In the courtroom. At the casino. At the polls. In the chamber. We want to win, take the prize, get the trophy, be right. Oh, how we want what we want.

It’s just business. All’s fair in love and war. To the victor go the spoils. Against the hyper-competitive backdrop of our world, it becomes easy to rationalize our behavior by what we want, what is expected, or how we want to be perceived. Most of us will decry blatantly obvious misbehaviors like invading other countries, armed robbery, embezzlement, or murder. However, the black and white turns quickly to shades of gray when things hit closer to home, and seemingly smaller self-comprises appear to offer a path to getting what we want without negative consequences.

Our business world offers endless examples of ruthlessness in the pursuit of aims. Individuals lie to win deals, machinate to get promotions, manipulate to undermine rivals, and betray in the name of advancement. Corporate leaders lay-off large groups of people, close facilities, cancel contracts, steal ideas, and shift alliances to appease investors, achieve bonuses, and maintain power. When life is “just business,” virtually any distasteful decision can be justified.

Hey, I get it. Stuff happens. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. But I’m not talking about “acts of God” or existential threats to survival. I’m talking about telling a potential client falsehoods about a competitor, setting someone up to fail or a deliberate betrayal to further your own aims. I’m talking about putting a group of human beings out of work because you need 5 points to hit your numbers. Along the way, we lose sight of the dignity of the individual and sacrifice our soul on the altar of self-interest.

The face of ruthlessness is before us everywhere we turn, it’s people like you and me. It’s the smile hiding the manipulation or the kind word obfuscating the betrayal. Rarely does it appear with horns, clawing hooves, and malice in its eyes. Ruthlessness often wraps itself in a mantle of obvious virtue. As Josemaria Escriva writes in The Way: May your virtue not be noisy.

A Full Accounting

We all want what we want. We all want to win. We all want to achieve, provide for our families, be recognized, get a trophy or two, and cross the finish line first. Every single person you know wants to prosper at some level. The problem is: the ends do not justify the means. How we move through life matters. The way we get to the point is critically important.

A number of years ago, I found myself in a performance conversation with a salesperson. Sales is an obvious line of work, right? The job is to produce revenue by selling the company’s products or services. We all know that there are good salespeople and bad salespeople. Or do we? What is a “good” salesperson? The one who hits her numbers? The one who generates the most dollars? In this case, the issue wasn’t really about hitting numbers, it was a hundred other things along the way: generating good activity, qualifying leads, using resources wisely, prioritizing time, telling the story effectively, representing the brand properly, etc.

My message was simple: we need to produce but it has to be done in the right way. We want to win, but how we win matters. And when we lose (yes, we’re going to lose from time to time) the way we lose matters just as much. Along the way, you become even as you are working to achieve. What you become, and what you show the world you are, is built one little brick at a time.

The business world makes for easy examples, but we are living this every day inside and outside the workplace. Each one of us is a steward of our own life, and frequently, the lives of others who are depending on us. We are given gifts, struggles, opportunities, and setbacks that are unique chances to become more…or less. We set the tone, tempo, and example in our homes, in our churches, in our stores, on our fields, and on our streets. How we do it matters.

What We Measure, What We Expect, and What Matters

One of the great tragedies of our ongoing pursuit of our selfish aims is that we compromise ourselves so cheaply. That lie or tidbit of gossip that flows so easily from our lips is such a low bar for our character. The really crazy thing is that it rarely helps us even if it hinders someone else. But I suppose that’s enough. When we stop for a moment and measure ourselves against that low bar, we realize how pathetically small we’ve become in our quest for our own gratification.

What do we expect from others? What do we expect from ourselves? Measured out in a lifetime of choices, we find that we’re living a duality suspended between what hurts us most and how much we’re willing to hurt someone else. The lowest level of hell is reserved for the betrayers but yet, time and again we embark on the little betrayals to get what we want only to find we’ve betrayed ourselves and those precious gifts we’ve been given to steward.

We all want fidelity. We all want honesty. We all want to trust. We expect all of the above and are disappointed when it doesn’t happen. We might tell ourselves, “When it comes to those I love, I’m faithful, I’m loyal, I’m honest.” Assuming that is an honest assessment, what about the rest of humanity? This is where the rationalization begins. They are different. They are on the other team. They are enemies. All’s fair in love and war, right?

The reality is that we’re tempted to compromise at all levels. Friend and enemy. Close and distant. We measure out fidelities, expecting them for ourselves, and frequently trying to keep some of the spread in between when we are slightly less than faithful in our commitments, truths, or sincerities. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Far more is demanded of us and the opportunities along that path of becoming are greater than we can realize. At the end of this particular day, we cannot reap what we have not sown. We will not harvest where we have not planted.

Grace Must Be Given, and Received

Amid this world of ruthless people, we must chose a different path. In the Christian tradition, Grace has been defined as the free and unmerited favor of God. Some people move gracefully and some behave with grace. Grace is granted when we assume good intentions or forgive a slight. If we’re going to change anything profoundly, in or around our immediate world, we must accept the Grace we’re given and return it freely; even if unmerited.

To return it freely is to chose honesty when those around you are being dishonest. It is to act faithfully when others are betraying. It is to speak positively when everyone else spouts negativity. It is to share your gifts where you can and accept the gifts of others humbly and gratefully. It is to compete fiercely, sincerely, and honorably, even in the face of deceit, manipulation, and dishonor.

We can pursue our aims with integrity. We can aspire hopefully and in such a way that others might aspire with us. We can win and lose gracefully, sleeping better at night knowing we’ve been good stewards of all of our gifts. How we do it matters. Who we, and those following us, become, depends on it.

  • Trish+Berry

    Good message, Phillip. I guess an examination of conscience is in order.

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