Borrowed Not Owned

Have you ever rented a piece of equipment, like a floor sander or wet vac? Maybe you needed a tile saw for a bathroom project or a trencher to put in sprinkler lines. Did you take the time to read the fine print (or maybe not so fine print)? There is always a clause in the rental agreement that states you must return their equipment in good condition. They do this because there is a natural human tendency to not take care of things if they belong to someone else.

There is a command in the Old Testament of the Bible that says the Hebrews were not to muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain. Oxen were used to thresh, or separate, the grain from the straw or chaff. If the oxen were muzzled, they could not eat some of the grain while they worked. Later, Paul cites this command within the New Testament. Interestingly, the Old Testament command is within a passage that is entirely about human rights. So, who is this command meant to protect, the oxen or the owner of the oxen?

The text doesn’t speak to who owns the oxen, but we can derive this from the context. There are only four possibilities: the owner of the oxen is threshing his own grain, the owner of the oxen is threshing someone else’s grain, a borrower of the oxen is threshing his own grain, a borrower of the oxen is threshing someone else’s grain. We can rule out the first two because the owner of the oxen would know the economic value of his oxen is far greater than the value of the grain they might eat. He has a vested personal interest in keeping them energized and healthy. We can rule out the last one due to the economics of the situation and the culture of the day. That leaves someone borrowing another person’s oxen to thresh his own grain and being tempted to muzzle the oxen to maximize his yield even if it compromises the health of the oxen he has borrowed.

By now you’re thinking (out loud maybe), “where is he going with this?” Well, here you go: the third way leaders show they care is to share the wealth.

When we say, “share the wealth,” what are we talking about? We are not talking about money alone. Webster defines wealth as an abundance of valuable resources. We are therefore talking about sharing all the things our communities and organizations make possible: access to opportunity, access to education, social benefits, the ability to manage time, ability to adjust to variations in life, and of course money in the way of competitive pay, bonuses, profit sharing, and great benefits.

The next question is why? This is where the command about the oxen comes in. There are really three things we can glean (see what I did there?) from this story.

First, if we care about the people in our community we will look after their health and well-being. The owner of the oxen didn’t need the command. He would have taken care of the oxen out of self-interest. As leaders, we need to see the people we serve as our responsibility. We don’t “own” them, but we should take care of them as if we did. This is the most self-serving of the reasons I will give. If you don’t take care of your people, eventually it will cost you more.

That actually leads to the next reason. We don’t own the people who work for us, we borrow them. We borrow them from themselves, we borrow them from their families, we borrow them from their communities, and we borrow them from the world at large. It is unethical and immoral for us to give them back in a state of disrepair after we have made use of their time, talent and skill. If you borrowed your neighbor’s tractor would you return it with an empty gas tank and broken parts?  

Finally, we have to acknowledge that we are not talking about oxen or tractors or equipment, we are talking about people. While it would be cruel to put a muzzle on a hungry ox while it walked through plentiful grain, it is far crueler to do this to humans. The surface issue of people being surrounded by resources they aren’t allowed to use at all is problematic. However, the bigger issue is the lack of humility that is displayed when leaders fail to recognize that the people doing the work create and drive the success of the company. Power without humility results in a ruler, not a leader.

This is not a call to a communal equal distribution of everything. This is an appeal to truly caring about people and making sure they share in the “wealth” they help create in ways that make them and the communities they are a part of healthier. As leaders we need to remember that we are borrowing people. Borrowing their time. Borrowing their talent. Borrowing their skill. We need to return them to where they came from with full tanks and well cared for, perhaps even better than when we got them. It’s a win for everyone and it’s The Kimray Way.