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Virginia author finds modern lessons in ancient holy book

Russ Linden's new book draws on the wisdom of the Torah as well as modern leaders to guide our actions in the 21st century.
Russell Linden
Russ Linden's new book draws on the wisdom of the Torah as well as modern leaders to guide our actions in the 21st century.

As a management consultant, Russell Linden has devoted decades to thinking about how people change and what they do when confronted by the unexpected.

“Our brains are wired for the opposite of disruption. Our brains are wired for predictability and control," he explains. "Dopamine is released when our brains make a prediction that comes true. Our brains are always anticipating, but the dopamine goes on strike when we get it wrong.”

And lately, he says, we’re getting a lot wrong.

“Change is happening faster and faster. It’ not only faster, it’s more disruptive – things that are coming out of nowhere that we can’t anticipate.”

In search of models for coping with dramatic change and challenge, Linden – an observant Jew – turned to the Torah – what Christians call the Old Testament. There, he found equally challenging times.

“We have climate change today and therefore extreme weather. They had floods and droughts, which created political havoc,” Linden says.

Then, as now, people wrestled with the issues tied to oppression and freedom.

“They had the liberation of Israelites after 440 years, and what happened within two weeks? They said, ‘We want to go back to Egypt. We don’t know what we’re doing? Where’s the food? Where’s the water? We need some stability.”

So Linden sat down to write a book on what the Torah teaches about leadership. In it, he concludes that fundamental cultural values must be at the heart of what we do, even as we accept and adapt to new situations.

“The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments – the connection to leaders today is, when we’re in a time of disruption, be willing to be adaptive and flexible on everything except what’s at your core. That, to me, is a powerful lesson.”

Be prepared, he adds, to speak truth to power.

“There’s a time period where the Israelites say,’ We want a visible God, and with Aaron – Moses’s brother – they build the golden calf to worship. God is furious. God is so furious he’s willing to wipe out his chosen people, and Moses says, ‘I’m angry too, but think, God. What will your enemies say if you worked so hard to free these people, and then you wipe them out?’ Moses is speaking truth to power in a way that God can hear. He’s not saying, ‘You’re crazy.’ He’s saying, ‘Think about your legacy.’”

And when all seems hopeless, consider the story of Hanukkah when a tiny bit of oil allowed a sacred lamp to burn for eight days. Sometimes, Linden says, we need the perspective that history provides.

“Hanukkah sometimes is called a holiday of light. The notion of light is hope, and what I’m finding some leaders are doing is taking the long view. Personally, I’m worried for our country. This is not a partisan statement. I can’t think of a time, except the Civil War really, where it’s been so scary, so I try to put myself – because I need some light -- several years ahead. Some historians are good to read right now, because they can help us see the longer view. Even though it took us decades to get past the Civil War, some good things happened in the aftermath. The best of us usually prevails.”

Russ Linden is a management consultant and the author of a new book called Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us About Leading Change. It’s available – like almost anything else – on Amazon.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief