Uli Chi: An Interview with a Wise Leader, Part 3

By Chelsea Logan

May 28, 2024


As part of an ongoing research project at the De Pree Center, we’ve uncovered fascinating insights into what makes a flourishing, healthy leader. Among the insights that surfaced was the reality that good, flourishing leaders can’t (and don’t) do it alone.

Every leader knows on some level that their road to and journey through leadership didn’t happen in isolation. All leaders are indebted to the various influences that shaped how they think about leadership and what they do with that knowledge. But great leaders stand out in their ability to name it—leaders like Uli Chi.

In this final interview with Uli Chi, we discuss the ways he was shaped professionally and spiritually by the people around him. We also talk about the people in his life that helped him to identify his leadership qualities, work through hard situations, and provide him with the troves of wisdom he carries with him today.

If you haven’t read Part 1 and Part 2 of my interview with Uli, be sure to check them out.

When did you come to recognize yourself as a leader? And what helped you come to that realization?

I started running for school office when I was a teenager. After a long string of failed attempts at different offices, I was elected student body president as a senior in high school. Shortly before, I also became a Christian. So, my first official leadership role became a chance not only to test out my leadership mettle but also to try and embody my newly found faith in a leadership context. I learned quickly that serving others not only involved joy but invariably involved challenges and even some pain. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that God was as interested in forming me as a leader as in accomplishing something through me. But despite the difficulties, many students and faculty were affirming and encouraged me to take my leadership gifts seriously.

At about the same time, I joined a local congregation, John Knox Presbyterian Church. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was asked to join the board of deacons and later the governing board. At that time, it was unprecedented to have someone so young serve in those roles, so that was encouraging as well.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned that God was as interested in forming me as a leader as in accomplishing something through me.

When I began my professional career, I thought of myself as a technology creator and not a leader of people. But business and pastoral friends quickly encouraged me to take on professional leadership responsibilities. What others observed showed me that I could motivate and care for people. I’m not sure I would have taken my leadership vocation seriously without their encouragement.

Who greatly influenced you spiritually and professionally in your younger years?

Well, I have a long list! I’m indebted to so many, but I will mention three:

My first pastor, John Kopp, taught me, as a leader, to love and pray for my people. John had a practice where he would gather with a couple of elders every Saturday evening and pray for our congregation. Soon after I joined the church, he invited me to join this little leadership prayer group. Each Saturday evening, we would spend half the time talking about important things happening in the church and the other half on our knees praying. Their love and commitment to pray for their community helped shape me spiritually as a leader. As an added benefit, they also taught me to love and appreciate the life and work of the local church.

In the early days of thinking about starting my own business, a senior retired business consultant, Charles Hamman, took me under his wing. I remember several times flying to his home in Palo Alto to spend a day or so talking about the “Why” and “How” of starting a business. He was both a thoughtful Christian and a wise business advisor. We had long hours of leisurely conversation about my interests and motivations for going into business, as well as the practical challenges of introducing a new product to market. Our time together was a remarkable gift and shaped the kind of businessperson I became.

Finally, I want to mention my friend Don Waite. Don became an associate pastor at John Knox when I started my professional career. What was notable about Don was his interest in my business career. Way before it became a popular thing to do in faith & work circles, Don visited me in my work setting, prayed for my work concerns, and saw my work as an expression of God’s mission in the world. As a result, we developed a lifelong friendship, and I’ve often consulted with him about crucial business decisions along the way. His companionship and faithful presence have been invaluable in shaping me both spiritually and professionally.

What type of inner work have you done that has influenced the way that you lead?

I’ve lived most of my life in a business world that practices the absence of God. Even though there are many people of faith in business, the culture of business acts as though God either doesn’t exist or is irrelevant to its work. Consequently, one of my most significant challenges has been not succumbing to that “secular spell” but developing an imagination and associated set of practices that take God seriously in such a secular context.

What I found most helpful was learning to pray the Psalms. The Psalms and the biblical narratives behind their imaginative world remind me that God cares about my life and work, even when I might feel otherwise. Even in a business context that practices God’s absence, I am invited to see God as the most important and most real aspect of my world.

The Psalms also invite me to bring who I am (not who I wish to be) into God’s presence when I pray. They give me the vocabulary to express my greatest doubts and fears as well as my greatest joys and hopes. And they remind me that God is at work in me even as God is at work in the world around me.

Even in a business context that practices God’s absence, I am invited to see God as the most important and most real aspect of my world.

Starting twenty-five years ago, I began praying through the book of Psalms each month. As a result, my imagination is daily formed into seeing God’s work in my work, and my life is shaped into someone who takes God seriously in all aspects of my life.

What was a disappointment you faced in your career? How did you work through it?

When I worked at Weyerhaeuser in the 1980s, we had significant success in developing and deploying leading-edge technology for designing home improvement projects. We had installed 500 or so Weyerhaeuser Design Center kiosks in places like Home Depot and Lowes around the US. I thought we would be given the green light to expand our work to other products and markets. But when I made that pitch to our senior executive sponsor— a great guy and usually very supportive—he’d declined to invest further.

I’d put all of my heart and soul into this. It felt like the next strategic thing to do, and I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t support my proposal. Feeling crushed, I remember talking afterward with my boss (who later became my business partner). He wisely counseled me to take the rest of the day off, go home, and think about why this rejection bothered me so much.

Taking time to reflect and ponder why made me realize how deeply I felt called to this work, even if it meant doing it in a different organizational setting. And that became the turning point for me to seriously consider going out on my own.

Can you share some of the most valuable wisdom you have received professionally and/or spiritually?

Three sayings have been notable for me:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That quote is usually attributed to Peter Drucker, and it reminds me that the community and culture you create and leave behind are more important than the strategies you pursue. As leaders, it’s easy to focus only on short-term financial results and neglect to cultivate the long-term cultural context in which we do our work. As Drucker’s saying suggests, the culture we create can easily make our strategies irrelevant or impossible to achieve.

Another related saying is from Max De Pree. Max often asked, “Who are you becoming?” That question is particularly addressed to us as leaders. In pursuing our goals, it’s easy to ignore how that pursuit shapes us as persons. Max’s question causes me to stop and make sure that my work is not distorting me as a person and that what I am doing is congruent with who I want to become.

In pursuing our goals, it’s easy to ignore how that pursuit shapes us as persons.

Finally, I love the quote from Steve Hayner, former President of InterVarsity: “I believe in objective truth, but I hold lightly my ability to perceive it.” I think Hayner said it exactly right for this moment in history when truth and our perception of it are so contentious. We tend to be more convinced about our reception of the truth than we are about the truth itself. Hayner’s quote also reminds me that humility is the essential virtue of wisdom.

What advice would you pass on to your leaders who are facing a changing world of work?

As I’ve said before, one of the most important things I learned is that wisdom is communal by nature. Another way to say that is that leadership is a team sport, not an individual one. Particularly given the pace of change, wise leaders need to intentionally cultivate a leadership community around them that will complement and diversify their gifts. It’s easy to attract people like us, but it’s much harder to attract and retain people who are different from us if we don’t consciously create space for them and value their contributions.

I’m an idea and strategy guy by disposition. I tend to attract other leaders who are innovative and strategic. My executive team had many great creative people on it. I remember at the end of one of our high-energy strategy sessions, one of the team’s younger members finally saying, “No more ideas! Let’s just do something!” She made us laugh, but she was right, of course. Her comment became a memorable reminder of my need to have someone like her in my leadership circle.

Chelsea Logan

Content and Production Lead

Chelsea Logan serves as the content and production lead for the De Pree Center. She holds a BA in the Study of Religion from UCLA and an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Chelsea has held leadership positions in various ministry and education settings, including serving a...

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