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COVID-19: A Refining Fire

Tigerville, SC (April 7, 2020) This morning I read through the book of Malachi as part of my personal Bible study.  When I began reading chapter 3, I was reminded of a paper that I presented at an academic conference in Dallas, TX, a long time ago. The paper dealt with improvements in corporate financial reporting, which came about as a result of the Great Depression. 

In speaking of the coming of the Lordís messenger, Malachi 3:2-4 says:

"But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refinerís fire and like fullersí soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years."

I had Malachi 3 in mind 28 years ago when I wrote that paper during a doctoral seminar on accounting history, and I used the analogy of a refinerís fire in my introduction.  I acknowledged that business downturns, such as recessions or depressions, are feared by all segments of society because of the hardships they bring.  Although economic slowdowns bring much distress and suffering, a great deal can be learned during trying times, and improvements can certainly follow.

When precious metals such as gold or silver are being refined, the heat of the furnace brings the dross and impurities of the ore to the surface.  Once the dross has reached the surface, the refiner can use his bellows to remove the small flakes of these impurities.  My paper stated that just as the refinerís fire brings the dross to the surface of molten metal, the heat of economic circumstances during the Great Depression brought many inadequacies to light in the accounting profession. That heat worked to help purge the accounting profession of dross and inadequacies, which led to improvements in financial reporting.

Now that is definitely enough about an old academic paper!  Today all of the economic experts say that we have entered into a recession, but what we face during the COVID-19 pandemic is far more than just a cyclical economic downturn.  We face a colossal disruption that no one could have imagined just a few weeks ago.  We will be impacted by the heat of the circumstances of this pandemic, whether we like it or not.  But, what will things be like for you on the other side of this fire?

I know that higher education, the arena in which I work, will never be the same.  Your work will probably never be the same, either.  Dross in an organization can be things like inertial sleepiness that inhibits our ability to adapt, inferior or obsolete products or services, waste, inefficiency, ineffective marketing methods, inappropriate leadership styles, irrelevant metrics, a toxic culture, or a host of other things.  As the heat from this global pandemic brings dross to the surface in your workplace, what will you do?  The organizations that thrive on the other side of COVID-19 will be the ones that recognize and remove the dross that is brought to the surface by the refining fire and set a new course for success in a marketplace that will be radically different.  We need to recognize that this heat allows for a refining process, start looking for the dross that is surfacing, remove those hindrances, and move forward as a stronger organization.  Now is the time for innovative thinking and entrepreneurial problem solving that will lead to human flourishing in this very dynamic marketplace.

This blog written by NGU Dean of the College of Business & Entrepreneurship Dr. John B. Duncan.


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