Ken Lay & Pharaoh: Successful CEOs | November 10, 2019

Ashirah la Adonai, ki ga’oh ga’ah 

I sat in my chair in the lecture hall of my seminary thinking, “this is too much.” Seminary was already overwhelming enough. I was only a few weeks into my first semester and felt overloaded with the work. Most first-year seminary students at Emory took five classes. I decided that wasn’t enough and took an optional sixth. By the middle of September, that felt like a mistake.

Between the commutes I was running from Macon to Atlanta and Milledgeville, the number of courses, and the difficulty of the content, I was overwhelmed as my professor tried to teach us a song in Hebrew. 

And yet, we continued, Ashirah la Adonai, ki ga’oh ga’ah, repeating it twice before moving on to yet more Hebrew words. 

We were learning about the story of the Exodus: the story of the release of the Israelites from the oppression of slavery and subjugation by the pharaoh in Egypt. It’s one of the most famous stories of the Bible and its imagery is rich: plagues of frogs, rivers of blood, a showdown between the misfit Moses and the god-king pharaoh. In the end, at the climax of the story as the Red Sea is parted, God wins and the people are delivered.

And so, they sing! Ashirah la adonai, they cry, for God has triumphed! The people are delivered and saved from their oppression! The god-king pharaoh is dead! Glory be to God, they are free!

But do we really know the story? 

Let’s hear the beginning of the story of the Exodus, starting with chapter 1, verse 8.


Sounds like a very rough go of it for the Israelites. They continue to keep their traditions and customs while increasing in population, a threat to the Egyptians. So, the Egyptians work them harder, oppress them more and more, such that the suffering of the people gets worse and worse. 

But do we really know the story?

Consider the view from pharaoh’s throne rather than from the view of the Israelites. The scripture we read tells us that a new king has risen up over Egypt. The Pharaoh is new and, like any new boss, he needs to establish himself. That’s management 101. You’re new, so do things that establish you as the leader, as the boss, so that you will not have your authority questioned. Pharaoh must establish his authority through his actions.

Then, he takes stock of the market, another example of good management. Good leaders look at the market for their product or service and determine where threats lie in order to mitigate them and, hopefully, corner the market. 

For Pharaoh, his product is Egyptian supremacy in the world. They currently have it, but tentatively so. He needs to shore up his empire’s power and defenses. The best way to do that is to find a weakness and remove it. The Israelites in his territory outnumber him. And they remember the days of Joseph, when one of their own was the second most powerful person in the most powerful empire in the world. Pharaoh needs to quash that memory by reminding the people they are his servants, not heirs to power in his land. 

So, he conscripts them to build defenses, including supply cities to ensure the people will have enough if they ever fall under siege or if there’s a famine that could weaken them in the eyes of Egypt’s enemies. He’s solving two problems at once: Egypt’s tentative hold on world supremacy and the threat the Israelites pose to the internal stability of his empire.

This is brilliant on Pharaoh’s part! He solves his problems by enslaving the Israelites in service to the Kingdom. In doing so, he reinvests the profits earned by Israelite labor to gain wealth and security.

And consider this: slavery is to their benefit! The ancient world was not a safe place to live, unless you lived within the borders of a superpower like ancient Egypt. Because they lived in Egypt, the Israelites enjoyed peace and security. Unlike their neighbors who lived outside of Egypt, they were not worried about clans or armies raping their women, looting their homes, and pillaging their fields. 

So the Israelites have all their basic needs met! They have adequate shelter, food, water, and they even get to live together as an Israelite community, keeping up with their own ways and traditions. Indeed, life is good in Egypt, so they should be grateful for the opportunity to serve the Kingdom by building its defenses. That, after all, is what keeps them safe.

Pharaoh, turns out, is quite the businessman. He’s cornered the market, he’s quashed the competition, he’s neutralized threats, and reinvested the profits earned from increased productivity into the infrastructure of a nation, securing its defenses in the process. 

Indeed, the historical record suggests that what the Israelites accomplished for the pharaoh did, indeed, secure Egypt and increase its power, making it even more the dominant superpower of its day. Pharaoh was shrewd, effective, accomplished, in his leadership. 

This is the other side of the story. An empire effectively managed to secure itself against internal and external threats while growing wealthier and larger. Pharaoh is a model leader.

It’s fair to say Pharaoh was a skilled executive who had the right business acumen to use the resources available to him to enlarge his market share. Pharaoh, we can rightly say, was a successful CEO.

Pharaoh was successful like Bernard Ebbers. 

In 1997, Ebbers steered Worldcom into a merger with telecom giant MCI, making Wordcom the second largest telecom provider in the nation. The sky appeared to be the limit for Ebbers, for he had navigated Worldcom through a series of take-overs and acquisitions from 1985 through 1997. His firm then moved, in 1999, to purchase Sprint, seeking to increase his market share. Like pharaoh, he was a skilled executive who had the right business acumen to use the resources available to him to enlarge his market share. 

Ebbers was a successful CEO. 

Successful like Angelo Mozilo. 

Mozilo founded Countrywide as a mortgage lender in 1969. Over the course of almost fifty years, Countrywide grew into a mammoth lender. It was estimated that, by 2007, up to 15% of all mortgages in the United States were held by Countrywide. For that entire time, Mozilo led this company, steered it, into unprecedented growth. Like pharaoh, Mozilo was a successful executive who had the right business acumen to use the resources available to him to enlarge his market share. 

Mozilo was a successful CEO. 

Successful like Ken Lay. 

Lay grew the merger of a few small natural gas companies into a large, diverse, energy company. This company was so good at diversifying, rapidly expanding its market share as it grew leaps and bounds, that Fortune Magazine named Lay’s company, Enron, “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six years running: from 1996 to 2001. Like pharaoh, Lay was a successful executive who had the right business acumen to use the resources available to him to enlarge his market share. 

Lay was a successful executive. 

Successful like pharaoh.

Ebbers, Mozilo, Lay, and pharaoh all have in common the drive, the skill, and the willpower to utilize the resources available to them to enlarge market share and create successful businesses or, in the case of pharaoh, a successful nation. From the outside, they appeared successful; to any onlooker, they appeared to be at the top of their game. Indeed, they received recognition from magazines and awards from agencies.

And all of them were disastrously unethical. Ebbers, Mozilo, and Lay all cooked the books, both to prop up the illusion that they ran a successful company and to pad their pockets. Each stole money from their companies. Each ruined the companies that they either founded or significantly grew. 

And in the process, each ruined the lives of their employees, just like pharaoh ruined the lives of the Israelites. Each of them cost the people who worked for them significantly. The ruin of these executives, from their unethical business practices and greed, ruined the lives of many. All these executives were caught and faced the consequences, including jail time. 

Just like pharaoh was unethical in his treatment of the Israelites. No matter how we might spin it, no matter how effective my argumentation was that pharaoh was a solid leader, his success was built off the backs of the poor. He owed all his success to his oppression of an entire people. When confronted by God through Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh would double down on his oppression, showing no respect for God.

So, rather than celebrating pharaoh as a skilled and crafty CEO, we must note that he was an unethical leader, using any means necessary for the benefit of his own power and might. Greed was true of pharaoh, too. He enslaved the Israelites to build the cities of Pithom and Ramses so that he could store all the wealth he was collecting; a wealth gained off the backs of slaves. That lack of ethics and greed eventually destroyed him, as it destroyed those other CEOs.

At some point, for all these examples of leadership, good business practice turned into unethical behavior that led to disaster. It’s easy to look at them and say to ourselves that we would never be that way. 

But that’s the danger: to think that we’re not capable of the same sins as everyone else. None of these CEOs ever woke up one day and decided to be unethical, nor did they wake up one morning and decide it would be great to steal from their companies. None of them ever set out to ruin the lives of their employees. No, the slide was gradual. Little by little, small decision by small decision, it became easier to eventually, one day, make the decisions that landed them in jail and their companies in ruin. 

That’s how sin often works: little by little, decision by decision, there’s a small almost imperceptible decline in our moral standing until, one day, we discover that we have become someone we never meant to be. 

Along the way, there are warning signs. The stories of these CEOs are filled with accountants and CFOs who tried to warn these executives about the financial state of their companies or tried to guard the CEO against unethical decisions. Pharaoh received the greatest warnings of them all: direct warnings from God through Moses and Aaron: let my people go!

And we, too, receive warnings along the way. We get those pings in our soul that tell us we’re doing the wrong thing or considering doing the wrong thing. We hear people we respect, whether mentors or close friends or family members we trust, telling us that it’s the wrong thing. Or even, if those folks don’t know what we’re considering, we hear their voices in our heads telling us not to. In those voices, in those pings, we hear the voice of God trying to speak a word of warning to us. 

But of course, these voices are rarely forceful. That’s how God operates. We have a choice. We have free will. Often through that still, small, voice, God gives us the opportunity to do the right thing. But, we can also just as easily reject that voice and continue on our slide toward destruction, little by little, small decision by small decision.

The examples this morning are those who rejected that voice over and over again. They chose not to listen, even when presented with many opportunities to make a course correction. 

We can be skilled, crafty, just like Pharaoh, and be an amazing leader or business person. Some of the skills pharaoh exemplified are great to have. He was clearly a very effective manager and leader of people. All the CEOs mentioned were also clearly very skilled, highly intelligent, with a capacity to accomplish great things. But with those skills, with those responsibilities for management and leadership, comes the need for humility. 

The opening of the scripture makes clear this is what Pharaoh did not have. He did not know Joseph, which is another way of saying he did not know God. Pharaoh thought of himself as a god, for that’s what his tradition told him that he was. He failed to have humility, he failed to worship Joseph’s God like his ancestors had done. And when you don’t worship God, it’s impossible to have proper humility. 

That’s the lesson for us this morning. How do we better equip ourselves to listen to that voice? To make the choice to stop a long, slow, slide into destruction? How do we prevent ourselves from using our God-given gifts to engage in unethical practices that can lead to ruin for ourselves and those we care about? How do we learn to use our God-given talents to better the world around us instead of only focusing on bettering ourselves? 

We worship God. On a regular basis.

That’s the key to humility. Worship puts us in our proper place. It reminds us that we’re not as big of a deal as we think we are. It reminds us whom we serve, whose image we carry around inside of us, who saved us and made us his own. 

When we worship and have humility, it’s much harder to make the little decisions that lead to a slide into big trouble. It’s harder to miss the voice of God, coming through the Holy Spirit or people in our lives, warning us against making the wrong choices. And that applies to all situations, whether you’re in business, whether you serve as a leader, or not. 

This is why little white lies matter. The more we do them, the more we’re able to tell bigger lies. 

This is why a little financial cheating here and there matters, even on our taxes. The more we do it, the easier it is to be financially unethical and even steal. 

This is why little outbursts of anger at others matters. The more we do it, the easier it is to mistreat and hurt others, or to even become violent. 

This is why the little things we do matter. 

None of the people we cited were born bad. None of them decided one day to become the kind of person who goes to jail and ruins the lives of others. They went to jail, and ruined the lives of others, because of small decisions, small choices, they made, little by little, until they became someone they never meant to be. 

This morning, if you’re trapped by decisions you’ve made in the past, confess those to God. Get right with God first and then pray and ask God to show you the way forward. It might be painful, but you’re not trapped. 

This morning, if you’re facing choices and wanting to choose the wrong thing, confess that to God and ask for strength to choose the right thing. It might be hard, but God will come through for you. 

If you want to be a better person, do right by the people in your life, handle your finances properly, give of yourself in the way God has designed you to; and if you feel like you’ve become someone you never meant to be, you’re not trapped and you’re not beyond reform. Confess your sins, ask God for help, and God will be there. God will provide. Redemption is God’s business. 

No matter where you are this morning, we all face these choices in our lives. So, make sure you’re here, at church, as often as possible. The attendance pattern for the average American is one time per month. Don’t be an average American. Be here weekly. Make church a priority. For that’s the best way to stay humble; to stay grounded in God.

The little things we do matter. They come to define who we are. But God is bigger than our little things. Worship directs us to God, keeps us in humble service, so that we can be the person God has designed us to be; a powerful force for good in the world.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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