The Serenity Prayer as Management Maxim

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Original version:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.((1))

This prayer written in the 1930’s by Reinhold Neibuhr is now widely known in large part because it is a staple of the drug addiction recovery world. It is widely referred to as the Serenity Prayer though Neibuhr did not give it a title.((2))

The title, Serenity Prayer, gives it a passive tone of acceptance. A closer reading clearly calls for taking responsibility for our situation. The prayer calls for one to: “accept”, “change”, and “distinguish” and apply the attributes needed: “grace”, “courage”, and “wisdom”. This is a call for engaged thought and action. Rather than the passivity suggested by the title that has been applied to the prayer, the overall sense is of much more vigorous and demanding tasks.

Without insulting the poetry of the prayer, the logical first step is to distinguish between that which can be changed and that which cannot. Here we might begin with the laws of physics and science as a source of wisdom. Then there are the short term and long term – technology is changing rapidly so today’s undoable become standard practice in only a few years. Market forces that appear completely dominant do in fact whither away or collapse with amazing rapidity. In the business world that most of us live in the unchangeable elements are fluctuations in the economy, currency rates, international trade, changes in government policy, regulations, and laws, war, and lots of other exogenous factors.

One unchangeable element that must be accepted by business managers is the past. As Peter Drucker puts it, “Systematic sloughing off of the old is the one and only way to force the new.”((3)). Managers need to identify those activities of the past that still hold value for today and the future and then leave behind the rest. That which cannot be productive tomorrow is part of the unchangeable past. And here we come to “courage” because it is easy if not fashionable to embrace the new, the next great innovation. But, when it comes time to forget about some significant activity that in the past produced sales and profits that is now flagging in both dimensions, that takes courage to say that we will invest in something new and actively plan for the close out of the old.

Control the Controllables

This business maxim is widely known. I prefer the somewhat longer version “Control the controllables, forget about everything else.” This version comes close to the depth of the Serenity Prayer without the grace or serenity. It calls for action to work on what you can control and simultaneously requires that you ignore, and by default, not blame or explain away the situation based on the uncontrollables. Implied is the same question of the wisdom to distinguish between the controllable and uncontrollable. Like Neibuhr’s prayer, this maxim calls for taking responsibility, showing integrity, and acting to change what can be changed or controlled. All of this must be done with grace, moral strength, and courage.

  1. Major Works on Religion and Politics by Reinhold Neibuhr, edited by Elizabeth Sifton, Library of America []
  2. Thanks for inspiration for what follows to Adam Kirsch’s article “The Ironic Wisdom of Reinhold Neibuhr in the 8/13/15 edition of New York Review of Books, pp. 74-75. []
  3. Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive – the definitive guide to getting the right things done, Harper Colophon Books, 2006. p. 108 []