Management the Hasidic Way

Moneybox—the special Days of Awe edition.

Just in time for the holidays
Just in time for the holidays

Business writers have instructed us in the management secrets of Shakespeare, the robber barons, the Greeks and Romans, Sun Tzu, and Attila the Hun. But what about my people? At last, just in time for the Jewish High Holidays, Moshe Kranc has published The Hasidic Master’s Guide to Management.

Kranc is a veteran programmer and high technology executive at companies in the United States and Israel and has five patents to his name. He is also a descendant of the Magid of Dubno, Rabbi Jacob Kranc, also known as “the Jewish Aesop.” So, nu, do 18th-century Hasidic tales really contain “timeless insight and wisdom for the modern business world”? What precisely can the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples teach us about human resource management?

Hasidism, which has its roots in 18th-century Russia and Poland, was a reaction to the prevailing austere, elitist, and doctrinaire form of Rabbinic Judaism. Instead of book learning and erudition, Hasidism valued deeds, sincerity, and expression. Its goal was to liberate the joyous message of Judaism from the stultifying walls of the yeshiva and bring it to the masses in forms that unlettered Jews could understand: songs, dances, and stories.

And just as Hasidism attempted to offer a jargon-free and accessible version of Judaism, Kranc attempts to offer a similarly zippy update to basic management lessons. The book is largely an unobjectionable and fun read. Kranc, who draws principally on the management theories of Peter Drucker, is plainly someone at home in many different worlds. How many writers can use both the Baal Shem Tov and Kansas City Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil to illustrate the same point (that in tough times, managers must work in the trenches alongside employees)? Chapters are introduced with quotes from Drucker and Dilbert cartoons. Each then recites a Hasidic story or two, a description of the management idea it illustrates, and a real modern-world example. In one famous story Kranc recounts, a rabbi describes a visit to Hell. The tables were full of food, but the people sitting around them were starving. Why? Splints on their arms prevented the diners from bending their elbows and putting food in their own mouths. In Heaven, the people, whose arms were similarly bound, extended their arms and fed those seated across the table. The moral: “The difference between heaven and hell is not the setting—it’s in the way people treat each other.” Kranc’s business lesson: Instead of managing by inspiring fear and intimidation, companies should try to create positive work environments. Kranc also lards (wrong word, I know) the text with personal experiences drawn from his life as a Jew and as a manager of quality assurance.

As with any ambitious concept, Kranc occasionally strains and reaches. “Lesson 35: Cultivate Your Team’s Reputation for Excellence” is illustrated by a story about how a poor widow was having a difficult time selling apples until the esteemed Rabbi Haim of Tsanz stood near her and declaimed about how wonderful the apples were. ” ‘The problem was not your apples—they are excellent,’ the Rabbi told her. ‘The problem was that people just didn’t know how excellent they were.’ ” But this tale is less about excellence than about how celebrity endorsements can snow consumers into buying products that may or may not be good.

The appeal of The Hasidic Master’s Guide is likely to be limited. It’s difficult to imagine a group of middle managers in Conference Room C in Building I on Corporate Drive, fingering their BlackBerries and relating tales of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and Rabbi Israel of Rozhin.

Kranc oddly underplays the greatest example of Hasidic management: Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, Schneerson built a Hasidic community in Brooklyn and then created a highly successful global enterprise with an intense strategic focus: getting Jews to become more observant. When it comes to Hasidic sects, the Lubavitchers are General Electric. What’s more, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died in 1994, managed to pull off something only a few CEOs ever do: He convinced many of his stakeholders that he might be the Messiah.