It’s little surprise that Jacob is revered by the Judaic tradition as a model for correct leadership. Jacob didn’t reject his father’s or his grandfather’s wisdom. Instead he combined them into a far more powerful mode of leadership.
To illustrate this, let’s return to the biblical narrative (in this week’s Torah portion) where when Esau heard that his brother had taken the firstborn blessings, he planned to kill him. Jacob fled from the land of Canaan and spent the next number of years in the house of Laban, his uncle. Now Laban was known as a swindler. In fact, Laban’s dishonesty was so great that he even cheated Jacob out of his promised bride. Laban had two daughters: Rachel and Leah. Jacob had fallen in love with Rachel and made a deal with Laban that he would work seven years for him if thereafter he was given Rachel as a wife.
But Laban tricked Jacob. When he awoke the morning after the wedding, Jacob discovered that he had married Leah and not Rachel. (This was possible due to the fact that after finding out that Laben was intent on giving the wrong sister to Jacob, Rachel divulged the signs to Leah that she and Jacob had agreed to use with each other on the wedding night to save her sister from intense embarrassment.) Laban had deceived Jacob and given him the wrong woman to marry. Laban then demanded that he work an additional seven years if he wanted to marry Rachel. Now remember that Laben was also Jacob’s main business partner and it was in this type of environment that Jacob had to grow his enterprise. Against all odds, Jacob’s agricultural business flourished, and by the end of the second seven-year period he had become even wealthier than Laban.
The million-dollar question is begging to be asked: How was Jacob able to flourish financially in such a difficult business environment? The Bible gives the answer and Judaic texts expound on it. According to the Bible, Jacob worked harder than anyone else in Laban’s encampment: ‘I was [in the field] by day when the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes. ‘ Jacob knew that if he turned away from his work for even a moment he would be deceived out of his money. He was constantly vigilant and built his fortune through sweat and pain.
Contrast that style of work with his father Isaac’s modus operandus. Isaac initiated projects and then removed himself from their execution. Jacob, whom it can be inferred from the Biblical narrative had a number of workers whom he supervised, both delegated and did the hard practical work involved in agricultural production.
Knowing the Business Better than Your Competition
Another hallmark of Jacob’s balance between top-down and bottom-up business approach was his ability to thrive in adverse circumstances by adapting having a detailed and ever-growing understanding of his businesses mechanisms and technology. When faced with his uncle’s trickery and the loss of the love of his life, Jacob gambled greatly by offering to work another seven years for Laban. He adapted to Laban’s game and then played it better than his uncle.
He did this by making an odd offer to Laban. Instead of being paid his wages in livestock or cash, Jacob requested that he get every speckled baby goat and every brown lamb that was to be born to the family herd. Not understanding Jacob’s plan and mistakenly thinking that the deal would benefit him most Laban jumped at the offer. Then, sneaking behind Jacob’s back, he secretly removed all the speckled goats and brown sheep from the flock, ensuring that Jacob received nothing for all his hard work.
This is where the Biblical narrative takes an odd twist. Jacob fashioned wooden sticks with bark stripped from them so that they had striped patterns on them. The goats that mated near these sticks then had speckled offspring. Likewise, the sheep that mated near the striped sticks gave birth to brown lambs. In its typical literary sparseness and economy of words, the Bible doesn’t explain why this trick worked. Perhaps it was the supernatural intervention of God. Or perhaps the peeled wood emitted some chemical compound that caused a mutation. Or perhaps a certain type of livestock that had a recessive gene for speckled or brown offspring was attracted to the striped sticks. Maybe he was performing a spiritual feat whose energy was able to achieve something in the mating of the animals that would bring him wealth.
Whatever the reason, the source of Jacob’s cleverness is clear: his intimate knowledge of animal husbandry earned through many years of working closely with his herds. He knew something about livestock breeding that Laban didn’t and he exploited that information to earn a vast fortune. He turned Laban’s greed to his own advantage and, without lying or committing any sin, became fabulously wealthy. This is indicative of Jacob’s balanced approach to business management. He was an expert in every aspect of his business and did not leave others to learn the intricacies of animal breeding, as CEO he knew that he had to have all the cutting edge knowledge available to succeed.
There’s another modern-day analogy that can be gleaned from this Biblical story as well. Jacob’s striped sticks were, essentially, a new technology. Jacob understood that technology better than Laban did and used that knowledge to his advantage. One of the modern business executive’s foremost obligations is to be involved in the intricacies of understanding the new technologies in his or her field and strategize a way for the company to benefit -and not get damaged -by those changes. Anybody struggling with this task would be well advised to study this Biblical passage closely.