The Business Lessons of Chanukah

Last week, I found myself reading up on Chanukah — the Jewish Festival of Lights – as my family and I prepared for the holiday.  As I looked for a new way to talk about the meaning of the holiday with my children, I began to realize the business lessons to be drawn from the symbolism used in the celebration.

Each night, a new candle is lit on the menorah.  On the first night, only the shamas (literally “servant”) or highest candle is lit, along with one other, symbolizing the first night.  On the second night, the shamas is used to light two candles, and so on.

It is written that the celebration is really about overcoming darkness, whether it be physical or spiritual.  A parallel can be drawn to business condition.  Particularly in these economic times, every business — successful or not — must fight to overcome inertia, old/bad practices, routine, or complacency.  Every business leader has to work each day to embrace and master new challenges, sometimes radically altering the way his or her company had done business for years before.

Overcoming the weight…and yes darkness…that constitutes resistance to change is a very real and daunting challenge.   The first light on the menorah, therefore, symbolizes how one candle, representing even the smallest positive change, is enough to overcome a world of night and darkness.

The lighting of the second candle shows how the light represented by that one small prior act now spreads.  This is a reminder that a single act — a single positive change — while not sufficient to accomplish a significant goal, can lay the foundation for more change.  The second light shows that we must redouble our efforts, even after the success of the last initiative.

The lesson of the third light is consistency.  As the saying goes: “We did it once because we were inspired and a second time because we were encouraged by the first. This third time, we push back at the darkness because we are committed.”  It is this third effort that expresses persistence and commitment to dispel darkness with light.

Upon reaching the fourth light on the menorah, we would find that we are halfway to fulfillment of our purpose.  This is point at which many worthwhile efforts find themselves sidetracked by distractions.  It is here that a leader must help the organization maintain focus by constantly asking the question:  “Does this help me achieve my goal?”

On the fifth night, we have achieved a majority.  The balance has been shifted from the old (darkness) to the new (light).  This is the most dangerous point in any process — when the goal is in sight and people can become complascent, knowing that the path is now downhill.  Should the team spend too much time reveling in its accomplishments, it will ultimately fall short of its goal.  So it is here that the leader must demonstrate the importance of bringing light (change) to even the most remote corners of the company.  It is not enough to achieve a majority — the goal must be completely fulfilled.

It is the sixth and seventh nights that are the richest in symbolism.  The Judeo-Christian heritage teaches that the world was created in six days.  By reaching the symbolic sixth night of any initiative, the leader has maintained a path long enough to bring about monumental change.  This is the time to check benchmarks.

Traditionally, the seventh day is a time of reflection.  Consequently, even though we may be in view of the goal, we have not quite reached it.  Near (but not at) the endpoint is a time to take stock.   Enough has been accomplished for us to review progress and make course adjustments to continue on.

Finally, we reach the eighth night — the time at which we have accomplished our goal of bringing about significant change.  Over the years, I have learned that nearly every culture has a holiday or festival that revolves around lights, whether electric (Christmas), candles (Chanukah, Kwanzaa and the season of Advent) or even lanterns in certain Asian traditions.  These festivals almost always seem to take place at the darkest time of year and serve to remind us of hope and of our own ability to spread light where there is none.

In the tradition of Chanukah, the use of the menorah through the eight nights of the festival, the teaching is that miracles can happen even though the road is long and arduous.

In the management of any business, it strikes me that the teaching is the same.

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