By Rabbi Ron Li-Paz
I was recently invited by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to speak to our service members, past and present, and the organizations that support and serve them.
The timing of the address was intentional. In the year just concluded seventeen veterans tragically committed suicide each day, according to the VA. Sadly, it appears that this stain on our country is a trend that will continue well into 2021.
As part of my remarks, I shared a tale that might just be the very story that business leaders need to read and take to heart as well.
A father and his young son are on a walk. The boy sees a heavy rock at the side of the road. He looks with a serious face up at his father.
“Dad,” he asks, “If I use all my strength, do you think I can move that rock?”
The father looks equally seriously at the rock and then back at his son.
“Yes,” he says, “If you use all your strength you can move that rock.”
The son takes off his jacket, positions himself against the rock and pushes—but nothing happens. The rock doesn’t budge. He leans in more and pushes harder but still the rock doesn’t move an inch. He tries again and again until finally, exhausted, he says to his father: “You lied to me. You said that if I used all my strength, I could move that rock.”
The father kneels down beside his son and replies, “You’re right. I said that but you didn’t use all your strength. You didn’t ask me to help you.”
Like this child, many of us get trapped in false beliefs about strength. We follow the narrative of the rugged American and think that his or her greatest strength is in solitude and not as part of something larger, more secure, more edifying than any one person can be.
But the most flourishing businesses and their leaders know that this is not the pathway to the achievement of strategic or financial goals, nor is it the road that will take their organization to long-term sustainability.
Success in today’s business world is not reliant on a single individual, but rather on a single unifying vision that brings every person’s strengths together to attain a shared mission. Respect for everyone’s contributions, at every level of the organization, is essential for meaningful accomplishment. That means that a variety of abilities, skills and points of view need to be embraced, weighed and balanced before the ultimate plan of action can emerge.
This, then, is a leader’s definitive role: to inspire and instill a commitment to teamwork and a dedication to collectively attaining the goals that lead to success.
Tom Hanks in the movie “Cast Away” built a relationship with a volleyball called Wilson. That’s how great the need is for human connection.
The bloodstained handprint of a face on the ball made Wilson somehow appear to be more human; but even if Michelangelo had painted the face on the ball, it still couldn’t stave off the despair that comes from being alone. Humans need humans. And just as we need them in our personal life, it turns out that we need them in business as well.
So, what do we do when we can’t wrap our arms around other humans? What good is Skype, Facetime and Zoom when they are just screen-substitutes for the real thing?
In truth, these technologies do a lot of good, as they provide a means for keeping in touch in ways that go beyond merely the phone or emails. Aside from not requiring some of us to wear pants or paint toenails, these teleconferencing platforms offer very real and meaningful connection. They have connected teams in “face-to-face” settings that may never have occurred otherwise, as the pandemic has been the ultimate disruptor to business as we knew it.
These technologies will not magically disappear once mandates for social distancing have passed. There is already much discussion in the business world about how many employees will continue to work from home. But while a remote workforce may become the “new normal” for some, we must never underestimate the value of interpersonal connectiveness or discount the synergy of brainstorming amidst visible body language.
Humans need connection as much as we need food, water and the air that we breath. We need to be seen. We need desperately to know that we matter to other humans.
For business leaders, building a culture of connectiveness has never been more important or more challenging. Doing so is the only way that heavy rock in the middle of the road will ever move.
• Rabbi Ron Li-Paz is the spiritual leader of Valley Outreach Synagogue, which is based in Calabasas and also serves Ventura County. He is an Agoura Hills resident and a former lecturer on leadership at UCLA.