Why Do We Work? (Part 1)

The account of the Israelite exodus from Egypt under Moses is shared by all three Semitic faiths, and speaks to the heart of the dilemma of being human in a complex society. Within us there is a conflict between two beings: one compliant and risk averse, the other somewhat wilder and thirsting for authenticity. It is the discourse that happens between the soldier and the warrior. The account of the exodus gives us very useful material to examine this conflict.

The Roles of Moses and Pharaoh

We can explore this distinction in the account of Moses and Pharaoh. The Pharonic model subjugates the people to the work of the social project. This project amounts to the construction of the pyramidic mausoleum of the leader. The aim of this mausoleum is to ensure the immortality and eternal aggrandisement of the leader. The people are enslaved to this project principally because of their own need for their security of life in Egypt. In the Mosaic model the social project is fundamentally bizarre. It amounts to an aimless wandering through the desert for forty years. However, this wandering is about enabling a generation of free people. The social project is therefore the means to the end of enabling the people, not the other way around. Moses, the leader, never gets to the Promised Land. He is expended in the process of freeing the people from slavery.

The Pyramid as The Structure of an Organisation

Our current take on leadership is made up by our understanding of the purpose of work. Work basically means doing useful things. Those in charge of the society are the ones who designate what work is useful, and the most useful work is concerned with building things that are impressive – edifices.

The pyramid is the aim of all work, much like in ancient Egypt. If this is not so in terms of constructing buildings, then it is at least so metaphorically: We have made the pyramidal structure the metaphorical framework for organisational life. When we speak about the structure of an organisation, an image that springs to mind is a pyramid.

A pyramid has a person at the apex and that person is the hero who is orchestrating all this work and everybody else is subordinate to the purpose of the work. So, if we then look at what happened to the people in Egypt, almost the entire society is enslaved to build this pyramidal structure that was designated as useful by the pharaoh.

Who is The Work Useful To?

The usefulness of the pyramid was very specific: It was a mausoleum of epic proportions wherein the pharaoh would live forever. This suggests that in a pyramidal society, all work that is designated as useful is actually about the eternal aggrandizement of the one in charge, the leader. When work is being designated as principally being about knuckling down and being useful, we need to ask the question ‘useful to whom?’

To knuckle down and become useful is to become the foot soldier for the social project, which is really concerned with furthering the interests of these iconic figures that have been put in charge; the ones who are on top of the pile. This is the wrong way around. The leader should be there for the people. The people aren’t there for the leader.

Moses’ leadership represents something quite different. Firstly, the task is quite bizarre and, in a sense, perfectly useless and futile. It is about wandering around the desert for forty years. The purpose of this wandering was not to produce anything concrete, like a pyramid. The purpose was to enable a generation of free people. People who were not slaves.

The aim of the work, the wandering, was to transform the worker, the wanderer.
This means that the people weren’t there for the work. The work (the wandering) was there to enable free people. The object of the work, the object of the struggle was not to achieve this utopian order. The object of the struggle was to achieve a free individual. The incidental purpose of work is to do useful things. The essential purpose of work is the transformation of the worker.

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