Redemption Does Not Mean An End To All Questions

A lot of us have been led to believe that to be redeemed means the conclusion of all challenges. There is a model for that. But it’s certainly not the only model, and living in the real world, I don’t think it’s the most helpful model, especially for builders. Moreover, I don’t even believe that finding redemption in the midst of our building is predicated upon success.

Now I want to be clear: I want more success than failure. I couldn’t stay in the game if I didn’t have more success than failure. But I don’t think we need to limit our sense of redemption to the times we have been successful.

Here are two examples from my life and work that help illustrate what I mean.

First, the story of an organization called No Labels, which is a multi-partisan political movement committed to finding practical solutions to the ongoing challenges of policy polarization, including their sponsoring of the Problem Solvers Caucus. Friends of mine and supporters of Clal, who are also among the founders and lead funders of No Labels, were looking for new thinking about the way religion and faith are so often mobilized in political fights and often to further polarize and paralyze us. At some point, there was a discussion: we really should be able to gather leaders for whom faith is an animating issue and not have it be a polarizer. It may not be uniter, but at least bring some wisdom so that it didn’t make things worse.  That was the big idea.

I/we hoped that this gathering would be convened through a major think-tank such as the Brookings Institution or the Aspen Institute. That was very exciting to me because I wanted to work with Brookings for some time and/or extend an old relationship with Aspen. It never happened. I mean, nothing happened, but it’s not even their fault. So I tell this story with no animus, especially as I’m sure there are good reasons that it couldn’t work.

The bottom line is it was a fail, at least based on what I hoped to build, and I was incredibly frustrated. Frankly, I had internalized the sense, as most builders do, that if things don’t work as we would like them to, I must have done something wrong. By the way, that’s not terrible. A certain amount of accountability is part of what I think makes for great entrepreneurs and great builders. Nonetheless, it was a moment of redemption, and I’ll explain how, after weaving it together with a story that has a happier ending.

Much more recently, I was working on an initiative that Clal has with the U.S. Army Chaplains Corps. We’ve been lead teachers in their Strategic Leadership Development Initiative for the last 18 months, and I wanted to integrate that work with a program called the Stand and See Fellowship, where we bring Christian seminarians and early-stage pastors to Israel.

So we’re trying to roll this out with the army, and this trip is supposed to depart in February. I get a call from one of the commanders of the initiative, who explains: “Yeah, the trip might not happen because force protection at the Pentagon has determined that maybe this isn’t really a safe thing for these people to be doing.” And I’m like, “Now you’re telling me?!”

I was kind of apoplectic because we had already invested a lot of money and a huge amount of time into the relationship. Now, in the end this one does have a happy ending in the obvious sense. Within 48 hours, everything is worked out. We’re going and doing almost the entire itinerary that we want, with some small modifications.

But to me, both the story with the positive outcome and the story with the negative outcome are redemption stories. That hinges on the fact that at the end of each of them, critical relationships in my professional life were stronger than they were at the beginning. I had to figure out how not to confuse short-term operational success with the building of long-term, durable relationships that would help me to build all kinds of things I hadn’t even yet imagined.

Both stories elevate for me the 2 principles that I try to use when I’m building. I say “try” because it’s hard, especially for builders.

First, the rabbinic adage that “All beginnings are difficult.” That actually means that if it’s not difficult, it’s not a beginning. Sometimes we forget that the difficulties are markers of being engaged in genuine innovation.

The second piece of wisdom is pre-rabbinic, which some people know, whether from Psalms, from the Don McLean song, “Babylon,” or perhaps the version by Bob Marley. In it we sing, “How will we sing God’s song in a strange land?” The critical piece of that for me is the word “how?” Because imagine being completely displaced from everything that is familiar to you. Yet the question isn’t “Will we sing anymore?” The question is, “How will we sing?” The presumption, of course, is that we will sing. The question is, “How?”

I think that’s the key to finding the moments of redemption. How we build changes based on whether or not it’s going well or poorly. But we remain steadfast in our dedication to build. Sometimes this can leave us feeling blue. But redemption is always more present than we often allow ourselves to see. Especially if we understand that redemption is not the end of all questions and that all genuine innovations are necessarily difficult or they’re not really innovations.  Redemption lies in knowing that and building based on that knowledge.

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