The Pastoral Call of Corporate Leaders

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BY J. ANDREW KEITH (WITH CHRIS KEITH)

Tertullian once famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” By this, the early church father (ca. 160–ca. 225 ad) was implying the church had no need for Greek philosophy.

In these perilous economic times, it may be pertinent to ask, “What has Wall Street—or better, Main Street—to do with Jerusalem?” Unlike Tertullian, the implied answer of this question is much.

Several recent situations in corporate America—some of which are unprecedented—have demonstrated the need and/or opportunity awaiting Christian leaders in this arena of service:

• Wall Street’s fall and the subprime mortgage disaster

• The publicity attached to the greed that caused them

• Investigations into unethical practices in supposedly humanitarian companies like ACORN

• Small businesses’ efforts to rejuvenate a struggling economy.

And in all of this there is much that corporate America can learn from the church. Christian corporate leaders can live their faith in ways that really matter to their corporations; it is a time when Christian leadership is needed.

The companies that will survive this recession and thrive moving forward will be the companies with good employees. And the best way to attract and retain good employees is for CEOs and managers to care about and for them—and show it by the way they operate their businesses. This is all the more reason for Christians to be deliberate about taking their faith to work with them.

Against this background, I write this brief essay as a Christian CEO to his brothers and sisters in Christ who also serve in corporate leadership. In church leadership circles, it is common to hear approvals and disapprovals of the “pastor-CEO” model, where the senior minister runs the church like a corporation. I’d like to suggest the opposite—those in corporate leadership should act like pastors or ministers.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that a business be run like a church; I don’t think anyone wants that, and certainly not me. Rather, my suggestion is simple: If you’re in corporate leadership, you should care about your employees the way a good church leader cares about his congregation. You, your employees, coworkers, and your corporation all stand to benefit from this type of leadership.

So, in what ways can corporate leaders act like pastors in order to personally and corporately invest in their employees? I suggest three simple ways.

Be Honest

At the heart of bad management and staff relations is distrust. Employees don’t trust that management listens to them or takes their perspective into account. Employees don’t believe management thinks about how corporate decisions affect their individual departments, much less their individual lives. In turn, employers don’t think employees are mature enough, or have a sufficient horizon, to be trusted with the information corporate leaders use to make important decisions.

The corporate leader aiming for a good leadership/staff relationship, however, will learn to be honest with his workers. A practical way honesty can be implemented is through an open books policy.

In The Great Game of Business, Jack Stack makes a similar case:

The best, most efficient, most profitable way to operate a business is to give everybody in the company a voice in saying how the company is run and a stake in the financial outcome, good or bad. . . . You only build credibility by telling the truth. You simply can’t operate unless people believe you and believe one another. That taught me an important lesson: lying and dishonesty are bad business.1

In most examples, the cliché of corporate leaders who have company money stashed in a vault behind a portrait in his or her office is as erroneous as it is old. But that does not stop employees from suspecting the worst of their bosses in moments of disappointment and frustration, though. And the recent revelation of Wall Street bonus packages has not helped dispel such feelings.

Thus, it can help to occasionally show employees, in an honest and informative manner, how an enterprise makes money and how the leadership spends corporate earnings in order to keep the business running. This does not mean you should reveal everyone’s salaries, but you can show employees how much of the budget goes toward salaries, benefits, maintenance, corporate vehicles, etc.

Corporate honesty must start at the top and will go far toward building a work environment of trust and respect.

Be Concerned for Your People

Ministers, at least good ones, care for their congregants as people. They are concerned with their lives, families, and well-being, because they are concerned with them. A well-rounded concern includes both their intellectual and practical growth. That is, good ministers expect their parishioners to grow in knowledge as well as in deed. Like a pastor with his church, corporate leaders must consistently care for their employees as people.

This is important because every business is a people business. Managing people is as important a task as a leader has—at least as important as problem-solving or vision-casting. If an employee is investing in the company using his or her abilities and time to benefit the company, he or she is thoroughly justified in expecting the company to invest in him or her as well. When employees sense a lack of care and investment on the part of the company, they become disillusioned and uninterested, ultimately leading to a lack of productivity that affects the bottom line.

Similarly, a vibrant company that provides opportunities for its employees to grow in technical and business knowledge should expect those same employees to be fully engaged and productive. An enterprise of uninterested employees will ultimately fail.

Remember: the Corporate Body Is More Important Than Any One Member

According to the apostle Paul, the church is a body and each member must do its part for the body to work properly (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). The same is true for a corporation.

Of course, in any body, some members have more responsibilities than others. Salaries and corporate flow charts will reflect this reality. Employees and a company’s leaders must be mature enough to understand this reality.

Employees and leadership must also be mature enough to know that no one part of the corporation is more important than the whole. Specifically, in direct contrast to some recent highly publicized examples, CEOs and management must not put their own well-being ahead of the “team,” including stakeholders and customers. Undoubtedly, this can be a useful strategy for short-term success. As we are now seeing, however, it is a disastrous strategy for long-term success and will eventually lead to the “powers that be” becoming the “powers that were.” Some body parts have more responsibilities than others, but all are needed for the body to be healthy and functioning properly.

It’s About People

Being a corporate leader is ultimately about people management. And from this perspective, it is important that CEOs and other corporate leaders be honest, care about their people, and appreciate each member of the corporate body in light of the whole.

Those leaders who cultivate an atmosphere where people are invested and care—about their jobs, the well-being of the company, each other, and their leaders—will have the strongest and most stable workforces in a time of weak markets and instability.

In the public bloodbath of Wall Street’s greedy misdeeds, corporate America would do well to look at what is happening in philanthropic America. According to Timothy Seiler, director of public service and The Fund Raising School at the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis’s Center on Philanthropy, not only was charitable giving down in 2008 from 2007, but givers also demonstrated a more restricted giving practice. That is, they’re giving less and giving it to fewer places. This trend suggests that those who receive what others have to give must establish a relationship of trust. In a restricted financial climate, will your company, under your leadership, be the recipient of what workers have to offer?

More importantly, since the role of a corporate leader is not completely encapsulated by goal setting and bottom line assessing, Christian corporate leaders must take seriously the call to live out their faith in the workplace. They must lead this way not because they stand to gain financially from it, but because they are convicted of the need to follow Jesus as a servant leader in their workplaces.

Not all witnessing occurs on a street corner. Sometimes the most effective witness for Christ we have is simply how we treat our employers, employees, and colleagues in the day-to-day grind.

J. Andrew Keith is CEO and president of The Atlas Companies (Louisville, Kentucky). Chris Keith works in research and development with The Atlas Companies and also serves as assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.

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