Daily Proverbial, 30 January 2012

If a man pampers his servant from youth, he will bring grief in the end. Proverbs 29, verse 21.

In many ways, high standards are what it’s all about. I spent 11 years on active duty in the Air Force (and another 2 in the Reserves after that). Most of the work habits that I still use today are carried over from things I learned way back then. My career is now in healthcare consulting; I keep the cost of your healthcare high. When I started working in the 1980s, I worked in signals collection, and I didn’t imagine I would end up working in what I do now. I didn’t even know this career field existed. Yet the habits I learned wearing my green fatigues have served me well and are ones I still use today.

For instance, I still seek mentors. In my AF career, I sought out a number of them. One taught me how to develop training. Another taught me how to lead with integrity and command others. Another taught me the basics of collection and how to be a crew chief. Yet another taught me the basics of software development and still another how to deal with people fairly and honestly. I’ve worked for seven different companies since leaving the military, and in each I have sought out some kind of mentor. When I go someplace new, I seek to find men and women who do things well, who seem to understand how things work, and I try to model my work habits around theirs. I’ve consistently found that these people hold themselves and their work to very high standards

Another habit is to hold myself responsible for myself and my work. Sometimes that means being super-critical, even perfectionist, about how I do things. I see how good people do things and I push myself to rise to their level. Sometimes that means honing in on details; sometimes it means focusing on strategy or a bigger picture. Either way, it’s a matter of holding myself to higher standards and doing my best on every task instead of just a few or just the ones with visibility.

I learned these habits from others; they didn’t come naturally, and it didn’t happen overnight. The mentoring started at home, continued in school, and was put into practice in the workplace, reinforced in friendships and relationships. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is a Godly thing to do, and a God-given blessing.

It’s a God-given blessing because, if you read the verse again, you see that it’s talking about these kinds of things, about upholding those standards, about setting good expectations and working hard to meet them. It addresses both sides of upholding those standards. First there is the mentor – the man – who should hold his servant – the person he’s mentoring – to high standards. Pampering means being soft, not being unduly harsh. One can be fair and just while still holding very high standards. Demanding the best of people need not mean being a jerk, or a rough boss. In my experience, the best bosses (and mentors) are those who hold to high standards without compromising on them, but understand that it takes people to make those standards work. They teach and work with you, pushing you to rise to your highest level while not letting you slack off unnecessarily. They do this because they understand that compromising on those high standards will only mean grief.

The verse also talks about the other end, namely that of the servant. A servant serves; duh! A servant needs to learn, to heed instruction, to pay attention, and to be willing. Slaves can be compelled; servants can be taught. If you’re a servant, you know you’re in the employ (sometimes indentured even) of someone who has great sway over you. Without instruction, without guidelines and expectations, you won’t please ‘the man.’ If you don’t please ‘the man,’ ‘the man’ can make your life hard. In the long run, nobody really wants to do shoddy work. Nobody likes to preside over junk. If you can avoid bad work, bad living, bad anything and reap rewards by doing so, don’t most people want to do this because, well, it’s the best choice?

And doesn’t that describe some of our motivation in understanding the lives God wants us to live? After all, God really is ‘the man.’ Bingo!

Not all the lessons I learned in Uncle Sam’s service were good ones. People who knew me then would rightfully say I was rude, crass, profane, obsessed, sometimes ignorant and bull-headed I also like to think that more than a few would also say I was good at my job, and that I served well. Both views are true, and from both I learned valuable lessons. The men who mentored me didn’t pamper me, and I appreciated that. They held my fellow airmen and I to high standards, and we became good at what we did. When I look around at the military plaques on my love-me wall, I’m proud to have served, and proud to have learned under such good people. In the mission field of a now-missional life, theirs was the hardest mission of all.

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