When talking to leaders in business and nonprofit organizations, we often find them skeptical that they can integrate their religious beliefs with their work roles. 

Especially when it comes to leading like Jesus, they indicate that while imitating Jesus is certainly a praiseworthy ideal, it doesn’t strike them as a practical goal.

Sure, they concede, Jesus is absolutely a nice guy — theperfect guy. But they add, often a little sheepishly, he never had to swim with the sharks. The rough and tumble of today’s world requires one to be assertive and self-focused just to survive. You know the old adage, “Nice guys finish last.”

Love your neighbor? Off the job, maybe. But on the job? You’ve got to be kidding me!

Of course, modern research about effective leadership does not support the “tough guy” approach. But neither does it support a milquetoast approach. Fortunately, Jesus was not a milquetoast leader.

He was gentle and supportive when those approaches were appropriate. But he was also absolutely goal-centered. He gave clear and specific directions to his disciples when they were called for, and he set high expectations for them. He also could be very direct, as when he turned to Peter and said: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (Mt. 16:23)

Then, in the next breath he addressed all of his disciples: “"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:24)

These are not the words of a leader whose goal is to build a reputation as “a nice guy.” 

So how can we be firm, clear, goal-centered leaders and still love our neighbors as ourselves on the job? One way is with values and policies that affirm the dignity of everyone in the organization.

While still in college, just about the time that I finished blowing the last of my spending money for the school year and was desperately looking for a job, I was blessed to meet a professor who also had a rapidly-growing publishing company in need of a salesperson. While my goal in getting a college degree was to not be a salesman ever again. Nonetheless, I needed money to stay in school, so I gratefully took the job.

I ended up working for that professor for about 17 years, switching to the writing side and eventually taking over a newspaper chain the company had purchased 200 miles from corporate headquarters. Running it with my wife as a team, we increased its gross revenues fivefold in eight years and turned it into a profitable enterprise.

Fortunately, through it all, we knew we were working for a good Catholic man who cared deeply for the people on his payroll. When it came time to manage the new acquisition, we found ourselves codifying some of the values that were implicit in the corporate culture he had built so that we could implant them quite deliberately in the operation we were charged with overseeing.

One of the first principles we adopted was: “You never get ahead holding other people back.” Our employer had always shown a great regard for the welfare and development of his people. We had seen the dividends it paid in their commitment and devotion to the work, and we wanted to enjoy that same harvest in our new setting.

Putting that principle into practice, we did everything we could to focus the spotlight of achievement on the members of our team. We gave them bylines on their bigger stories. We offered them workshops. We spent time on one-on-one instruction. When they won awards in various regional, state and national contests — and soon enough they were winning a lot — we made sure they were on hand to personally accept the awards.(The common practice was for publishers to attend the conventions and accept the awards earned by their staffs.)

Sometimes our commitment was costly, as when a superb young editor who had come to us like manna from heaven said she wanted to move from central Illinois to Houston to be nearer to her fiancé. We hated to see her go, but we helped her find a position with the Houston Chronicle and even wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation. 

But the benefits for us vastly outweighed the costs. People in the industry noticed our commitment and we developed a reputation as a very good place to work. Nearly always we had a big file of excellent applicants to turn to when we needed to fill a position. The awards piled up and the revenues kept growing. When the company sold the place a few years after I left, it got almost 17 times what it had put down to purchase the operation.

Ken Blanchard, business guru, best selling co-author of The One Minute Manager and co-founder of the Lead Like Jesus movement, says wise leaders make the development of their people a part of their mission – central to their purpose. Jesus did the same thing with his apostles. In that way he modeled what he taught: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Mat 22:37-39). 

As we noted last week, in Greek the word for love in this passage is agapeseis, the imperative for demonstrating agape love — love that is selfless, passionately focused on the highest good of the other. 

With that kind of love, you can build wonderful organizations of all kinds — be it a family, a neighborhood, a business, a parish or an international organization. 

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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