The Benefit (and Risk) of Leading with Care

By Michaela O’Donnell

January 19, 2023

De Pree Journal

For the last 18 months, I’ve been enamored by the question: What does it look like to lead in a distinctively Christian way? I’m curious partly because of my work at the De Pree Center. Partly because I believe that faith ought to play out in an embodied way in my own work. So, I wonder, from finance to film, from the Church to corporations, what does it actually look like to live and work in a way that signals that our roles as leaders are marked by our call to be followers?

Toward this curiosity, my team and I have spent the better part of the last year working on a project that seeks to understand what healthy, faithful, and fruitful leadership looks like in the marketplace. We conducted 18 focus groups and nearly 40 in-depth interviews. Every time I sit down to analyze an interview, I honestly get a little weepy. Why do I get so emotional?

Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian pastor turned children’s television personality is famously quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” [1]

Y’all, I feel like I’ve found the helpers.

We talked with a variety of types of leaders—ranging from small business owners to those in the C-suite of multi-national companies. As I read through the transcripts, I could quite literally feel the outsized burdens these leaders shoulder and that they are faced with more than their share of no-win choices, they are managing change –and themselves—with candor and grace, playfulness and compassion. Their faith really is embodied in the way they lead.

While we’re not ready to make final conclusions about our findings, there’s a lot that’s standing out to me. Much of it is refreshing. Some of it feels a little paradoxical. Take for instance two themes that have arisen: a) healthy leaders care about results, and b) healthy leaders care for people. At first, I wondered if these two themes—or motivations—would feel at odds with one another.

Now, it may not surprise you to hear that the leaders we talked with are driven by an almost insatiable desire to achieve remarkable results. They want to put the very best products into the world, be leaders in the market, and build lasting companies.

But guess what? The leaders we interviewed cared just as much about people as they did about results. Sometimes they express deep compassion for their employees. Sometimes you can hear that they really love their customers. Usually, it’s some combination of these and more. The bottom line is that healthy leaders are oriented by care for others.

I found it intriguing that the leaders in our study did not inherently see the results they envisioned and the people entrusted to their care as at odds with one another. Sure, there were times when a desire to achieve results and a value for people came into tension in some very specific way. But for the most part, they didn’t.

Ok, here’s what was most revelatory for me personally—it goes further than just the fact that results and people don’t have to be at odds with each other. Here’s the crux of it: Healthy leaders know deep in their bones that the way to achieve truly remarkable results is by caring deeply for people.

Take for instance Jack [2] who is a Senior Vice President of Sales at a major automotive group. He discovered that one of his company’s most popular cars had an engine defect in it that, while not enough to render the car inoperable, could end up costing owners hundreds of dollars annually in maintenance fees and would not likely last as long as owners expected given the historical reliability of the brand. Because he cared so much about these customers and did not want to burden them with additional costs related to owning this car, he asked the company to pause manufacturing and sales until they could address the defect in the engine.

Because of the popularity of this car model, Jack’s decision put the company’s profits at risk as well as the income of salespeople who were paid on commission. Some of the top-performing salespeople actually left the company, opting for workplaces where they wouldn’t miss a beat in racking up sales. But the ones that chose to stay did so because, like Jack, they didn’t feel right about putting a subpar product into the market. The fact that leadership would place individual lives above profitability ended up making them loyal to the company in a way that Jack had not predicted. Though it took a couple of years, the values-driven sales team ended up shattering sales records that more than made up for the short-term loss in profit.

In this case, deep care for the customer led to lasting and meaningful results. Now, that isn’t always how it works. Sometimes we care deeply for people and we end up shortchanged or heartbroken. And, that’s very real. Sometimes we work for or with people who are anything but healthy, leaving us powerless even when we can see the way forward. So, caring isn’t a sure bet. On the contrary, caring can feel pretty risky.

So, we have to honestly decide if we will take the risk. We have to understand our contexts and whether they’re safe enough to hold our care. But if they are and if we’re in a position to see the connection between our care for people and the results we desire, well that’s quite the opportunity.

Consider your own context. Is it a place where deep care for people might lead to truly remarkable results? If so, how might your care for your teammates, clients, students, or employees unlock truly remarkable results?


[2] Several details have been changed to protect the anonymity of our research participant.

Banner image by The Coach Space on Pexels.

Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

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