“No One is Indispensable.” Really?

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24/10/2022

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24/10/2022

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You may have heard people say, “No one is indispensable.” Depending on the context, it could be your boss dismissing your importance, your colleague or family persuading you to take a break, or just a general platitude that is thrown around during a company meeting.

But is it really true that none of us are indispensable?

I think how we approach this question depends on what is at the center of our view of work.

Is Work at the center, or is the Worker at the center?

Just recently, I caught COVID for the third time (the first one was always the most memorable; the second time was in June). I had no choice but to take medical leave to isolate myself at home for 6 days until I cleared my Antigen Rapid Test (ART). During this period of time, my colleagues helped to cover my work and assured me that I can rest at home without worry. Nevertheless, it was additional stress and workload for them.

During this time, I was thinking about the question of my ‘dispensability’, and the question of indispensability in general.

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If work is at the center, then the worker is only a cog in the system. He or she can be replaced by another person, maybe an even better one. In large organizations, this is often the case. Even CEOs can get fired for missteps and be replaced by one of the hundreds waiting to take his or her position.

But if we probe deeper, that may not necessarily be a good thing, at least not all the time.

Sometimes the person who was displaced was really doing a good job. When someone is taken out of a team, the network of relationships, and the team dynamics, are all altered. If the person has invested much effort in building a great team, removing that person may mean that everyone has to start from ground zero. And this will inevitably hurt the organization.

The good work that the person is putting in may extend beyond the network of relationships. He or she may be a visionary for the organization, leading and directing the people toward a goal that takes time and effort to attain. Taking that person out may jeopardize the organization and hamper its progress.

This is not only applicable to leaders. Workers with expertise and a special skill set may prove indispensable in a practical sense. If the person has an innate talent, it is difficult to find someone to replace that talent within a short time. Skills and competencies take time to develop.

My biggest qualm with this statement – that nobody is indispensable- is that it dehumanizes us.

My biggest qualm with this statement – that nobody is indispensable- is that it dehumanizes us. It is defining people as nothing more than their functional value, or what they can contribute to the bottom line of the organization. If every person has intrinsic worth and dignity, then, by right, no one should be considered as ‘dispensable’.

What if the Worker is at the center, then?

Let’s say we put the worker at the center. What happens?

This affirms the inherent dignity of the worker, and the unique value that he or she brings to the table. It is saying that we are all indispensable in our own ways.

This is what happens when a person responds rightly and obediently to his or her calling in life. When we are placed exactly where we should be, we thrive and also help others around us and the organization to thrive.

But there are a few problems with this stance as well.

Firstly, it can become too individualistic and entitled. If I see myself as indispensable, then I attach too much importance to my talents and skills and the value I bring to the organization. This is not only obnoxious, but it is also unhealthy, especially if I am a leader.

Some people are afraid of becoming dispensable to the company or organization, and so they work themselves into a position of indispensability. This is not healthy for the organization because people will leave one day, whether by choice or circumstances.

Secondly, it betrays poor leadership succession planning. As leaders, we ought to develop future leaders that will take our place, so that there can be proper succession. If we think too highly of our own importance, we may forget that one day we will leave or pass on our position to someone else.

Forty Years a GeneralDelightful Stories, 1888 (Source)

Someone once compared Moses to Joshua. While both are great leaders, the one thing that distinguished Moses from Joshua is that Moses had a leadership succession plan (Joshua), and Joshua didn’t. When Moses died, his successor Joshua was ready to lead the Israelites to conquer the promised land of Canaan. But when Joshua died, there was no obvious successor, and soon Israel fell into a state of idolatry and chaos during the times of the judges. Everyone did as they see fit (Judges 21:25).

This is not to say that Joshua saw himself as indispensable. Rather, it is to caution us that, while we are living out our calling, we must always remember we are not permanent. For the sake of the people we lead, we should always look out for the next generation of leaders after us.

What if neither the work nor the worker is at the center, but God is?

The way to resolve this dilemma, to my mind, is that we put God at the center. Work should not be all-important such that people become dehumanized into little more than cogs. Neither should the worker exalts himself to a position of self-importance that the organization cannot survive without him.

To see God at the center is to recognize that He sovereignly calls people to work at places and times He determines. When these people respond, they are indispensable to the extent they respond rightly to that call.

To see God at the center is to recognize that all our gifts and talents are really His gifts to equip us for our work. It does not make us indispensable to God (as if He needs us to do His purposes), but it makes us indispensable to the people and organization we are called to at that point in time and place. It calls not for pride, but for accountability.

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The perfect metaphor for this relationship is the imagery of the Church as the Body of Christ, and each of us as members of His Body (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, etc).

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

Romans 12:3 (NIV)

If we think of ourselves with sober judgment, we would not fall into the danger of thinking too highly of ourselves, which a human-centered view of work is prone to. Neither will we belittle ourselves to think that we are replaceable and insignificant. We each have our role to play. Unless and until God calls us elsewhere, we are to fulfill our purpose in the here and now as faithfully as we can.

God at the Center of one’s life work – the example of Samuel Morris

Samuel Morris (source: Wikipedia)

What happens when we center our life’s work not on the work itself nor the worker, but on God? Perhaps the life of Samuel Morris illustrates it best.

Samuel Morris (1873 – May 12, 1893) was a Liberian prince who was kidnapped and tortured by an enemy tribe at the age of 14. He had a miraculous escape and later converted to Christianity. Around age 18, he left Liberia for the United States to achieve an education and arrived at Taylor University in December 1891.

In the States, Morris found Stephen Merritt. Impressed by his anointing and confidence, Merritt invited Morris to stay at his house. In a time when racism against Africans was widely accepted, the community which encountered Morris instead saw that God was working in him and created the Samuel Morris Missionary Society to collect funds to send Morris to college so he could study the Bible. He enrolled at Taylor University, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

While at Taylor University, Morris encouraged many people in their faith. Students frequently asked to pray with him. People from around the world would come to hear him speak. He was known to spend hours in prayer with God, from late at night to early in the morning. Newspapers printed stories of “the boy from Africa who was charging Fort Wayne with the electric power of God”. Morris was an active member of Berry Street Methodist Episcopal Church and regularly attended East Wayne Street Methodist Episcopal Church.

Sounds like a promising young man of God destined for great things, don’t you think?

In fact, Morris desired to be educated in Biblical literature in order to return to Liberia as a missionary. However, late in 1892, he suffered a case of pneumonia that would eventually end his life.

A person who sees himself as indispensable will think that this is a cruel joke. But not Samuel Morris. This is what he said,

“It is not my work [to go to Liberia]. It is His. I have finished my job. He will send others better than I to do the work in Africa.”

-Samuel Morris

On May 12, 1893, at approximately 20 years of age, Samuel Morris died. Fellow students served as pallbearers at his funeral. After his funeral, many of them said they felt led to go to Africa to be missionaries in Samuel’s place.

Samuel Morris had played his part, and God’s work continues. What amazes me is how he could find absolute peace with that. It speaks of a faith that does not exult in self-importance, but trusts that the God who calls us knows exactly what He is doing.

Conclusion

The phrase “nobody is indispensable” is often used as an HR shield to signal that no worker is so important as to see himself or herself as permanent or irreplaceable. However, this dehumanizes the worker and relegates the individual to little more than a cog in the machinery of the organization. On the other hand, putting the worker at the center exalts the individual too highly and creates more problems in the long term.

Only a God-centered view of work helps us to balance the needs of the organization AND the worker. It honors the dignity of the worker as an individual with a specific calling. And it organizes efforts to develop people as leaders-to-be, recognizing that we will all leave the organization one day.


This article is part of a series of posts about calling and work. Check out the other articles that explore how we can live out our calling in the world of work:

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