The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Why God Cares About Values-Driven Leadership“
February 22, 2021
Intro: You’re really going to love today’s podcast episode. Listen to one of the most-recognized Christian leaders of this generation. He challenges us to lead like it matters to God. Stay tuned as Rich Stearns talks about his new book.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. As we all face today’s leadership challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe having a healthy culture is more important now than ever before. We are here to help you eliminate toxicity, improve your employees’ engagement, speed up new innovation, and grow your organization’s impact.
And before we meet our guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button and receive our free action guide.
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And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
I’m delighted to welcome one of the most-recognized Christian leaders of our generation. Rich Stearns is president emeritus of World Vision and the author of the soon-to-be-published book Lead Like It Matters to God: Values-Driven Leadership in a Success-Driven World. Rich, I’m so glad to have you with us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Rich Stearns: Well, it’s a delight to be with you, Al. And as you know, I followed your work over the years with Christian Workplaces. I’m a big fan.
Al: Thanks, Rich.
For those who are just getting acquainted with you here on our podcast, let’s go back in time a little bit. One of the things from your résumé that really strikes me is that you made a decision to move from the corporate world to the Christian ministry back in 1998. I mean, you were the CEO of Parker Brothers games, CEO of Lenox China, and then all of a sudden, you abruptly quit your role and took the helm at World Vision. So, of course, that’s one of the largest Christian ministries in the world. What motivated you to make that abrupt change at the time?
Rich: Well, Al, the short answer is I really felt God’s calling on my life to that role at the time, and it was really a chance to not just talk the talk of my Christian faith, but to walk the walk, to put my faith into action in a real, tangible way. Now, I was, as you might remember, I was kind of a reluctant Christian superhero. I didn’t really want to leave my corporate career at Lenox. I was doing well. I was 47 years old. I was just hitting the peak of my earning years at Lenox.
And the story goes that one day a headhunter called, and he said, “I’m representing World Vision, and they’re looking for a new U.S. president for World Vision United States.” So the minute I heard what the job was all—I knew about World Vision. My wife and I had been donors to World Vision for many years, but I also knew that this was not going to be a job with a bigger salary and more perks and more benefits and all of that. So I was kind of figuring out, how do I get off the phone with this guy? In the course of the conversation, I said, “Gee, I’m really not qualified for this job. Never been to Africa. I don’t know anything about global poverty. I don’t have a theology degree. This is a Christian organization. And on top of that, I’m not available, and I’m not really interested in the job.”
And this particular recruiter was a Christian man, and he was persistent. He said he just sensed something on the call. Later told me he sensed something, that the Holy Spirit was saying, “Keep pressing this guy. Keep pressing him.” So he changed the conversation. He said, “Let me ask you this. Are you willing, Rich, to be open to God’s will for your life?” And, you know, for most of us as Christians, our knee-jerk answer would be, “Of course I’m willing to be open to God’s will for my life. That’s what we do. That’s what Christians are all about.” But when it gets very specific, in my case, it meant, are you willing to quit your job and your career? Are you willing to sell your house, which we had just bought a farm house on five acres, was kind of our dream house. We had five kids. Are you willing to pull your five kids out of the Christian school that they love out in Pennsylvania, Delaware County, Pennsylvania? And are you willing to take a 75 percent pay cut?
I mean, so, saying yes, that I’m willing to be open to God’s will for my life meant that I had to say yes to all those other things. And the last yes, I had to say, was, Rich, are you willing to go to the poorest places on Earth, to go into famine zones and war zones and refugee camps and see human suffering up close and hold dying babies in your arms? And maybe that was a harder thing to say yes to than even the other things, you know, because God was really calling me out of my comfort zone.
So anyway, to make a very long story short, I agonized with that decision for months, and ultimately World Vision chose me and offered me the job, which surprised me because I didn’t think any Christian board of directors in their right mind would hire a guy from the luxury-goods business—fine China and crystal—to run World Vision. But they sensed God’s calling on my life as well. And so I finally said yes and came to Seattle in 1998. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It was perhaps the greatest and most joyful 20 years of my life. I served 20 years as president there. And I am so glad I said yes to the Lord instead of no, because God always gives us the chance to say no. We are the ones that lose when we do say no. We’re the ones that lose the blessing that He has in store for us. So, yeah. So that’s my story of leaving Lenox.
Al: And I’ll mention to our listeners, read Rich’s book Hole in Our Gospel. He goes into more detail of that transition. I remember reading that and thinking, wow, this was really a great, momentous change. But looking back, you know, as you made that transition, was it a big adjustment, Rich, for you as a leader to move from selling luxury goods, as you say? You certainly had a different customer there in your previous role than poor children, tackling global poverty. Or was it your business background that really carried you into the ministry? What was your reaction?
Rich: So, the answer to that is both yes and no. It was a huge culture shock to go from a secular luxury-goods company with a secular corporate culture to a Christian ministry that had a completely different culture. The missions were totally different. One company sold fine China and crystal to the wealthy, and World Vision was about ministering to the poorest of the poor. And even the spiritual dimension was so different. What Lenox wanted was just a good secular business leader. What World Vision needed was a shepherd, a pastor, someone who could bring the ministry to life and inspire the staff around the mission and cast a vision for what was possible for us to do in the world.
And so I realized after a few weeks on the job that they were looking for a shepherd and a pastor, and that had not been my modus operandi in the corporate world, and it was something I had to reinvent myself, I guess, in many ways as I acclimated to that brand-new culture. But on the other hand, Al, World Vision was a big organization, and both Lenox and World Vision had marketing. We had HR, we had finance, sales, IT. We had customers that we serve. So it was a very familiar leadership and management challenge.
I’ve often used the metaphor of if you’re a pilot that flies 737s, you can get in the cockpit of a 747, and it’s very similar. You know, it’s got most of the same controls, all the same principles. You might have to learn a few idiosyncrasies of how the two planes differ, but if you’re a pilot, you’re a pilot, and you know the instrumentation, and you know the principles of flight and flying an airplane. And it’s very similar in leadership. I think if you’ve been a leader in a secular context or a for-profit context, you can transfer those leadership skills, most of them, to a not-for-profit context and a ministry context. But you’ve got to adapt to a very different culture. I think that’s the bottom line there.
Al: I was just talking with somebody. I’d just hired a couple of people into this Christian environment from the marketplace, and they would go to prayer meetings, and they would just cry during the prayer meetings because they were so happy to be in such a different environment than this corporate-business experience.
Yeah, but in your office, Rich, you had stenciled on the wall Paul’s words in the Corinthian church. He writes, We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors as though God is making His appeal through us. Why are these words so important to you?
Rich: You know, Al, most of us have at one time or another said we have a life verse or a verse from Scripture that seems to have resonated more with us than anything else. And if I have a life verse, this is probably it, because that one phrase, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors as though God is making His appeal through us,” it seemed to define perfectly my role as a Christian in the world, my role as a Christian leader, whether I was leading in a secular environment or a sacred environment, that wherever I served, I was an ambassador for Jesus Christ, first and foremost.
And here’s the thing about ambassadors. If you’re an ambassador from the United States to Ireland, your job is not to represent yourself when you’re in Ireland and dealing with the people and the officials who live there. Your job is to represent the interests of the one who sent you. So if you’re the American ambassador, you’re representing the American interests to this country.
Well, the metaphor works pretty well for me, that if we’re sent by Jesus Christ and we’re His ambassadors, we are in that workplace. Whether you work at Amazon or Microsoft or Boeing or General Motors or Uber, you’re there, as a Christian, to be an ambassador for Christ and to represent the interests of Christ and His kingdom in the place where you serve. And the corollary to that is you’re not there for your own self. You’re not there to benefit yourself. You’re there to glorify God. And yes, it’s your work, it’s your livelihood, and you, obviously, have to earn a living and do work to do that. But I think that that is a wonderful verse for any Christian to take with them around the world. And if you’re an at-home mom, your Christ’s ambassador in your neighborhood and in the school system that you interact with. It’s a very important verse and something for us to keep in mind wherever we work.
One other concept in my book, I have this chapter called “You Have This One Job,” and the notion comes—it’s a familiar phrase—you know, oh, he had that one job, and he didn’t even do that well. Well, our one job is to represent Christ. So that’s our real job. When I was at Lenox China, my real job there was to be an ambassador for Christ. My cover job was selling China and crystal. And I could take that secular workplace and turn it into a sacred workspace for me.
Al: I love it. Christ’s ambassadors. And are we making His appeal through us? That’s challenging.
You know, as you say, these things matter to God. And that leads me to mention the title of your book again. And it’s due out in March, and I’m really looking forward to it. University Press is publishing it. The title is Lead Like It Matters to God: Values-Driven Leadership in a Success-Driven World. And I can hear virtually every Christian leader say right now, “Yes, I want everything I do and how I lead to matter to God, and how I lead to matter to God.” Wow. How do you respond to that sentiment?
Rich: Well, I would talk to two different kinds of leaders that might be listening right now. So first, this. Let’s say you’re a leader in a secular environment. You work for a corporation or something, and you’re a Christian. I think one of the things I see in Christians who enter secular workplaces is there’s a real temptation to compartmentalize your faith, or to say it a different way, to check your faith at the door on Monday morning when you go into the office and then pick it up again on Friday night when you leave. And that’s because you’re entering a very secular workplace. You might be entering a hostile workplace or a toxic workplace, and your faith is not welcome there in an overt way, in many cases. You know, you could get fired for saying too much about your faith in the workplace.
But what I would say to those people is that we have to take God to work with us, we have to take our faith to work with us, because if you believe what I said a moment ago about we have this one job, to be ambassadors for Christ, our job is to go into that workplace as followers of Jesus Christ and to act and behave as ambassadors of Jesus Christ. Our character is our witness. Our character is our witness. And someone once said to me, “But if I do that, I’ll be the odd man out. I’ll stand out like a sore thumb.” And my answer was, “That’s perfect. You want to stand out in that workplace. You want to be that person that rises above the office politics, that person of integrity, that person of humility, that person of compassion in that workplace, because you are the fragrance of Christ in that workplace, and your character matters, and it’s your character that will be your witness.” So that’s what I would say to people that are maybe a little bit fearful of taking their faith to work. And it doesn’t mean you have to proselytize. You know, you’re trying to convert people at the workplace. It just means you have to be that positive ambassador.
Now, on the other side, in the sacred space, the ministry space, Al, what I see there is a lot of secular paradigms for leadership and corporate culture seep into the church. They seep into Christian ministries. And even characteristics like leaders have to be arrogant and bold and take no prisoners, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and some of these leadership mentalities, a leader’s never supposed to show weakness. A leader is never supposed to apologize for something they did wrong. Those things seep into the sacred workspace, often in unhealthy ways as well. So we can make a mistake on both sides. We can bring secularism with us into the Christian workspace, and we can fail to bring our faith with us into the secular workspace. So I think both of those things are dangerous, but both of these workplaces can be meaningful. And if you work for a secular company, that’s meaningful work. That’s a meaningful assignment that God’s given you. It’s not just the people in ministry who are doing God’s work.
Al: I love what you’re saying. I have seen this, and I think we all have to really kind of cautious, secular leadership mentalities often creep into the Christian workplace, and, yeah, are we leading like Jesus? Are we leading in a way that matters to God? Exactly.
Rich: There’s nothing wrong with bringing secular ideas into a Christian workplace. We can benefit a lot from Jim Collins’s books and Patrick Lencioni’s books and some of these secular business leaders and writers. Anything that makes us a better leader is welcome, but we have to have a filter. If we adopt all of the behaviors of secular workplaces, we’re bringing the bad in with the good, and so we have to be careful to discern, “Hey, this is valuable and useful. A new tool, a new paradigm. I can use this in my ministry.“ But keep the bad stuff out, and bring the beneficial stuff in.
Al: Absolutely. Yeah, I know exactly. To look at things through a biblical worldview and evaluate. For example, Jim Collins talks about level-five leadership. And one of the two key characteristics is humility. I remember talking about humility in my previous role in the secular workplace, and people looked at me cross-eyed, like, “Humility? You think that’s important? No. You need to be arrogant. You need to be aggressive. You need to be all these other things.” I know that’s the kind of secular leadership mentality that you’re talking about. Yeah.
Rich: That’s right.
So, in the book you boldly say success is overrated. So I love your subtlety, but tell us more about overrated success.
Rich: I don’t think you’re going to find too many leadership books that say success is overrated, because most of the people buying and reading leadership books are doing so so they can become successful. And success means more status, more money, more perks. But as a Christian, I think we live in what I call a success-obsessed culture. We celebrate the richest people. We celebrate the winningest teams, the fastest-growing companies, the biggest churches. We are like marinating in a success-oriented culture. It’s all about winning and succeeding and being the best and making the most money and having the highest status.
But what I try to say in the book is, you know, God is not impressed with success. He is not impressed with our success. The idea for this book actually came from a Mother Teresa story that I’ve heard, and since writing the book, I’ve researched it a little bit more. But many years ago, former Senator Mark Hatfield from Oregon visited Mother Teresa in Calcutta and went to her ministry in the slums. And being a senator and kind of an American who looked at how do we fix these things, how do we fix these problems of poverty, he was struck with this tiny little nun with a few sisters of the poor, working with her in a sea of human suffering and poverty that was just so overwhelming. And he said something like this to Mother Teresa. He says, “Mother Teresa, don’t you feel like a failure? There is so much poverty in Calcutta. You’ve been here for 40 years working with the poor, and poverty is arguably worse today than it was when you started. Don’t you feel hopeless and that you failed? You failed to eradicate poverty even in this one city.” And Mother Teresa said to him, and I can just picture her, four foot, nine inches tall, wagging her finger at Senator Hatfield. And she said, “My dear Senator, my God did not call me to be successful. He called me to be faithful.” So with those 14 words, Mother Teresa took most of our leadership paradigms about success and turned them upside down. Faithfulness, not success, faithfulness is success for the Christian, right?
And so I believe success can become an idol in our lives. We have to remember, when I was at Lenox China, of course, I wanted to be successful. I wanted to get promoted. I wanted that next job, that next rung of the ladder. But when I let that become all consuming, God is not impressed with the title on your business card or the size of your bank account. And in my book I try to imagine that day that sometimes all of us think about, standing before the Lord, giving an accounting for our life. And try as I may, I cannot imagine God saying, “Wow, Rich, you became a CEO at age 33. You rocked it. You killed it. And 25 consecutive quarters of earnings growth at Lenox, you knocked it out of the park.” I don’t think God will be impressed at all with that stuff. My wife is not impressed with that stuff. What God will ask me is, “How did you treat the people that I entrusted to your care or to your leadership? And what kind of ambassador were you for Me in the places where you worked? Were you faithful, Rich?”
So that’s why I wrote this book, because I think these 17 leadership values that I write about will help us be more faithful leaders. And for those of you that want to be successful, and that’s a normal human desire, I actually think these values, when you practice them, will make you a more successful leader as well.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
Now let me interrupt our interview to announce an important new offer from BCWI. Mark your calendar, Wednesday, February 24, for a free one-hour webinar on the must-have tools you need to steward your mission and your talent for recovery. We know leaders are exhausted because they’re dealing with the multiple challenges this past year. We’ve developed a webinar series that will help you refocus your efforts to improve your mission and talent for recovery. This webinar will give leaders practical tools to position your workplace cultures and organizations to flourish in the months and years ahead. Again, mark your calendars for Wednesday, February 24. That’s at 10:00 a.m. Pacific, which is 1:00 p.m. Eastern. Register today at bcwinstitute.org.
And now, back to our podcast. And now, back to today’s special guest.
So, what would you say to somebody working out in a secular environment, in a business, maybe a small business, even a school or a hospital, how would these Christian values make a difference in those environments?
Rich: Well, you know, we’ve already covered that, first of all, it’ll make you a better ambassador for Christ. But the values I talk about in the book, there are things like integrity, humility, courage, perseverance. Love is one of my values for leaders. Do you love the people you work with in the way that Christ loves people? And Christ loves those people that you work with. So there’s a long list of these values, encouragement and balance and self-awareness and courage. And if you practice these values in the workplace, everybody wants to work for someone or with someone who is a person of integrity. Everyone wants to work with someone who has humility; who’s willing to forgive others; who’s a loving, caring person; who has a sense of balance and ballast in their life; who’s an encourager, somebody that is always building others up instead of tearing them down. So if you can be that person in your workplace, you’ll be kind of an island in the storm.
Corporate cultures can be pretty difficult, pretty challenging, and if there’s a person in your corporate culture, your organizational culture, who is this kind of person, they will attract people to them. You will be the one who people walk into your office and say, “Hey, Al, could you give me some advice? I know you’re a person of integrity, and I have a difficult decision to make. Could you counsel me on this?” And you’ll be kind of a balm to people, you know, a soothing balm in a difficult, stormy world that we live in. And again, your witness for Christ really revolves around your character and the example you set in the office. And you, basically, want to provoke the question to which Christ is the answer in the places where you work. Why is Mary like this? Why is she so calm in the face of adversity? Why is she so compassionate and caring to her coworkers? I want to know more about Mary and her life. And the answer to that question is, the difference is Christ.
Al: We should be used to having people come and say, “There’s something different about you that attracts me to whatever that is, whatever causes that difference.” No question. Yeah.
I’ve spent 40 years helping marketplace companies, and now Christian organizations, create healthy workplace cultures, and value’s right at the core of this work. In your mind, how can today’s Christian leaders instill values that you’ve mentioned in the people who make up an organization’s culture?
Rich: Well, leaders are actually critical to shaping and creating culture. First of all, the leader of any group or organization really sets the tone for that organization. They set the expectation for behavior. They set the cultural norms. But you can’t just send out an email to people, saying, “The culture I desire to have is comprised of the following a, b, c, d, e and f.” A leader has to model the values and the culture that that leader wants to create. I believe very strongly, one of the reasons I say leadership matters to God is that leaders are the ones that create cultures in organizations. And I don’t care if it’s the government or a hospital or a for-profit company or a nonprofit, leaders shape the culture and the cultural expectations for behavior. And you can create a horrible culture in which people cannot flourish in that culture, a culture that’s toxic. It’s rife with office politics. It brings out the worst in human behavior. And I’ve worked in cultures like that, and they’re demoralizing and dehumanizing. But a good leader can create a healthy culture where people can flourish, Al. And the goal of a Christian leader is to create the environment within which the God-given gifts of all of the employees can be released and optimized. And even people who work with you, who are not Christians, they have been made by God. They have gifts and talents that God gave them. And you as a leader, your job is to release those gifts and talents from those people and to create an environment in which they can flourish. But you can’t just send out an email. You have to constantly reinforce these values.
And one of the passages I love in scripture is from Deuteronomy 6. So think about this in terms of communicating culture, wherever you work. “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts, impress them on your children, talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” This was Moses telling God’s people to sync these values in the law of God, the way of God, sync this into your culture, sync this into your families. And the way you do that is by repetition and modeling and more repetition and modeling and more discussion. So that’s the job of a leader, is to try to create that kind of environment for his or her employees.
Al: You know, in your book, Rich, you identify 17 critical leadership values and principles, and they range from surrender to sacrifice and from courage to humor. Which of the seventeen critical leadership values that you’ve listed matter the most, especially when you want to build an organizational culture with collaboration and resilience and trust, especially in these fragile, uncertain times? Get us into the book a little bit. What are some of these critical leadership values?
Rich: Well, yeah. It’s hard to pick just a few of these values because I think our character is the sum total of all of the values that we represent, which we call character, the character of a leader. But if I had to pick just a few for these times, let me list four: integrity, humility, self-awareness, and encouragement.
So integrity really is almost a value above values. It’s what I call the North Star for a leader. No one wants to work for a leader that has no integrity. And we’ve seen very vivid examples of people with lack of integrity out in the world, in the corporate environment, in the government environment, and even in the church environment, sadly. But integrity means that you’re a person of your word. And there’s something I call relational integrity, that you have integrity in your relationships at work. You say what you’re going to do and you do what you’re going to say, and people trust you. You’re a safe person to talk to because you’re trustworthy. And people say, “You know, whatever you say about Al, he’s always going to try to do the right thing. Even if it costs him something, he’s going to try to do the right thing. And I want to work for somebody like that.” So integrity is critical in building trust.
Humility is a much-maligned attribute, and especially leaders, you don’t think of humble leaders. But as you said, Jim Collins identified that humility and perseverance being the two qualities of the best level-five leaders. But humility means that you as a leader understand that you don’t have all the answers, understand that you make mistakes. A humble leader surrounds themselves with really gifted people. I even say hire people smarter than you. If you can, hire people smarter than you, and then give them permission to disagree with you, to criticize your decisions, to challenge your ideas. Be willing, be humble enough to understand that people in your organization might have better ideas than yours if you listen to them, if you give them a chance and listen to them. So humility is about saying I don’t have all the answers, and that’s why I need every member of my team to be part of this, part of what we’re doing. So humility also encourages others. Nobody likes a boss that thinks he knows all the answers, because if I know all the answers, you’re not very useful to me, because if I have the answers, why do I need you? And it makes people feel diminished.
Last two. Self-awareness is an awareness that you don’t have all the answers. It’s an awareness that you sometimes make mistakes, and it’s an awareness that as the boss, your words can have a devastating impact on others if you’re not careful. If you criticize somebody openly in a meeting, and you’re the boss or the CEO, that can be devastating to a person who just got dressed down in public. Conversely, if you praise somebody at a meeting, it can be magnified as well, and your words of praise can lift a person’s spirit.
And that leads me to encouragement, that the best leaders are not always criticizing. They’re encouraging. They’re giving “atta boys,” “atta girls” to people that are making good contributions. They’re celebrating their employees. They’re celebrating their contributions. Everybody likes to be around encouraging people. And encouragement actually brings out the best. When I encourage you and say you did something really good, you want to now do something else that’s really good. But if I criticize you, I could crush your spirit, especially if I do it publicly. If I criticize you publicly in a meeting, you’ll think twice again before you contribute an idea in that meeting because you’re afraid the boss is going to crush your spirit and embarrass you again in front of your peers.
So I think those are really important values for a leader to embody.
Al: Yeah. And those are just four of the 17, so let’s make sure we get the book so we can read the rest. That’s great, Rich, thanks.
And to widen out your thoughts just now, is there a message in your book for Christian leaders in these uncertain times? You know, we’ve been through COVID, financial difficulties, even injustice kinds of issues from a racial standpoint. What do you have to say at this time for Christian leaders?
Rich: Sometimes I’ve heard people say that crises build character. And we’re in a crisis right now, in a variety of ways. Certainly, COVID-19 is a crisis. We have an economic crisis. We have health crisis. We probably have a political crisis. I think parts of the church are in crisis right now. This is a very stressful time, both for companies, churches, ministries. But I don’t totally agree with that, that crises build character. I actually think crises reveal character. So you see the true colors of a leader in a crisis. And in this past year, we’ve seen some of the best in leadership revealed, and we’ve seen some of the worst in leadership revealed as we look around our country and around the world.
But here’s the thing about crises for those of us who want to be ambassadors for Christ. A crisis is the best time to be a witness for Jesus Christ in your workplace, because it’s at times of crisis that people are hurting, people are looking for answers, and if you can be the person in the middle of a crisis who’s calm; who seems to be able to rise above the stress, the pettiness, and the whatever accusations going back and forth in the office because revenues are down or things are in trouble; if you can be that calm person in the midst of the storm, your witness can really shine, and you can be that person that others come to for comfort, for help. And that is really a way that lifts up your witness in a positive way in the workplace and helps your coworkers.
Al: I’ll bet you’ve got a favorite story, Rich, that illustrates and maybe even brings to life why this value that you’ve mentioned matters to God.
Rich: Well, yeah, Al. You know, what I just talked about, being an ambassador for Christ at a time of crisis, I’ve got a story about that. Years ago, when I was at Lenox, I was the chief operating officer at the time. I had not yet made it to CEO. And one of the Lenox divisions—Lenox had four or five different divisions. Each one had its own president—and one of the Lenox divisions was really having a terrible, terrible year economically. They were losing money, and there was a lot of talk from the CEO and the parent company that we might have to close this division down and just shut it down and fire all the employees. And so this division was under tremendous stress and pressure.
And I had to go to that division one day to do a business review and bring a report back to the CEO on what I’d concluded. And when I walked into the conference room in that division headquarters, there were six or seven of the leaders—the president of the division, the vice presidents were there—and the look on their faces, it was just ashen. They were shell shocked. They were traumatized. They were facing terrible business conditions, and they weren’t able to get out of the tailspin that they were in. And so I closed the door behind—and here comes the COO to do a business review. So they’re terrified at what I’m going to say or think—so I closed the door, and I sat down and said, “Hey, look, before we begin this business review, there’s a few things I want to say.” I said, “Every one of you in this room has worked your heart out to try to solve the problems that your division is facing. You are some of the most talented leaders and managers that I know. And I know you’ve given everything you can to solving these problems.” And I said, “I don’t know at the end of the day whether we’re going to be able to fix this. I really don’t. But I know you’ve done your best, and I know you’ve given everything you had.” And I said, “I want you to understand this. You are all bright, capable people. And even if you were to lose your job here, there are hundreds of companies out there that would be lucky to have you working for them. And you’ve got to look at your glass as half full, not half empty. You’re bright, you’re capable. You’ve got families that love you. You’ve got great experience, and you have so much to offer. So whatever happens out of this business review, I just want you to know that you all have a bright future, and we’ll get through this one way or the other. We’ll get through this.”
Well, you could just see the relief wash across the room, just because—I didn’t promise them that they would keep their job. I just said to them, “You matter. You are gifted. You are talented. And don’t let this business crisis define who you are, because that’s not fair to you.” And so we went through the whole business review, and we came up with some ideas and some strategies. And I went back to the CEO of the parent company and said, “I think we need to give them more time, give them a chance to turn this around. I believe they can.”
Well, a few years later, the division was not closed. A few years later, when I resigned—I became CEO, and then a few years after that, I resigned to go to World Vision. We talked about that earlier—and the division president who was in that room that day became my successor. He became the CEO of all of Lenox. One of the vice presidents in that room that day became the division president and the president of that division, which was now profitable again. And so a few years later, everything had turned around, and everything looked better. And those key people actually stayed with Lenox and got promoted to the next job. And it was just a case of me as a Christian leader being able to comfort people that were in the middle of a terrible business problem and to encourage them a little bit.
Al: Yeah. Great story. Thanks, Rich.
Well, I’ve really enjoyed everything that we’ve learned today. I’ve just reflecting on some of my notes here. Of course, we’re Christ’s ambassadors. So I love it where our character is our witness, as you’ve spelled out just so well, that sometimes we bring in secular leadership mentalities that aren’t Christian that creep into the Christian workplace. And I think all of us as leaders need to just sit back and say, “What are the things that really drive our Christian leadership? How is the Holy Spirit even acting and leading through us, that we need to really think about being faithful, not successful?” Boy, that’s a great truth. I love your passion that leaders can create a culture where people flourish and that leaders shape the culture. They set the tone, but for sure, they’re the ones that can shape the culture where people flourish. You’ve got 17 characteristics in your book. You’ve talked a little bit about integrity, humility, self-awareness, and encouragement, just four of the 17. Just great, great stories. And here we are in a crisis in many ways for many of us and how that doesn’t build our character, but it does reveal our character, and it’s the best time for us to be ambassadors for Christ, and I’m hoping that all of us are in a position to do that. So, thanks, Rich.
How about, is there anything that you’d like to add that we’ve talked about now that you’ve had a chance to think about it?
Rich: Well, you know, one of the things that I tell people about values-driven leadership is values are free. Values don’t depend on your IQ or your abilities or whether you have a Harvard MBA or… Anybody can embody these values, these Christian values. The janitor and the CEO can be people of integrity. They can be people of encouragement. And so the beauty of values-driven leadership is these values make you a better leader, but they don’t require you to master some new skill set that may be too complicated for you to master. I know when I used to read leadership books, I would sometimes get discouraged because I thought, “Well, I’ll never be that good a leader. I’ll never be able to master General Electric’s Six Sigma program.” So in a way, what I’m trying to offer to Christian leaders is kind of a simple foundation for your leadership, based on your character and based on the values you embrace. And I just really believe that leaders who embody these values will lift the performance of their teams because they will create a healthy culture, a culture that produces creativity and innovation, and dedicated employees who love where they work and so they work hard because they love their work and they respect their colleagues and they feel respected. And so just being that kind of leader is a gift to the people in your organization, and it’s likely to make all of your team more successful because of it. So I guess I would leave you with that thought.
Al: Yeah. And again, I want to thank you in your retirement for spending all this time writing this book that we can benefit from. But I’ll bet you there’s something you’d like to leave with our listeners. One final thought.
Rich: You know, Al, a lot of the things I write about in this book, I wish I had had a book like this when I was 25 because some of these things I discovered only much later in my career. Hopefully, the book is helpful to younger leaders there. But you know, there’s one thing I want to speak to that leader out there that might feel inadequate. They might feel like, you know, “I’m never going to be that amazing leader that everybody—you know, the Lord can’t use me in the workplace like He can use other people. I’m just too flawed. I’m just not good at this. I’m not good at that.” And here was a revelation I got very late in my career. And it’s the revelation, just listen to these words. What Christ is doing through you, whoever you are, what Christ is doing through you, it involves you, but it does not depend on you. What do I mean by that? So David in Scripture was involved in slaying Goliath with a slingshot, right? But it didn’t depend on David. God gave him that victory. Moses was involved in confronting the pharaoh and leading the Israelites out of Egypt, but it didn’t depend on Moses. God delivered the victory. And you can go through almost every hero of scripture. Peter was involved in leading the first-century church, but the outcome did not depend on Peter. What do all of these people have in common in scripture? They were just faithful, just like Mother Teresa said. They just tried to be faithful, and they trusted God for the outcome. So, however flawed you might be as a leader, just trying to be faithful to the Lord in the place where you work and trust Him for the outcomes, and you’ll be amazed at how God can use any one of us. Flawed as we are, He can use us to accomplish His purposes in our workplace and in the world.
Al: Rich Stearns, president emeritus of World Vision and the author of the soon-to-be-published book Lead Like It Matters to God: Values-Driven Leadership in a Success-Driven World, thanks so much for being so open, genuine, and sharing with us. Thanks for taking your time out of your day and speaking into the lives of so many leaders. We really appreciate it, Rich.
Rich: Thanks, Al. It was great being on your program.
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