January 19, 2023 • Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders
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.’” 
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  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?
 Several details have been changed to protect the anonymity of our research participant.
Banner image by The Coach Space on Pexels.
Dr. Michaela O’Donnell is the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she oversees the center’s vision, strategy, program, and team, all with the goal of helping leaders like you respond faithfully to God in all seasons of your life and leadership.
Michaela is the author of Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World. It’s gotten rave reviews from folks such as Dave Evans, Mark Labberton, Missy Wallace, Luke Bobo, Dee Ann Tuner, Kara Powell, and more. This book is a reflection of Michaela’s heart as both an entrepreneur and a practical theologian. Drawn to the real life working out of big issues, it is a how to for anyone walking the road of calling in a changing world.
Click here to view Michaela’s profile.
I agree with the general direction of this post and believe it could help move the needle toward care-based leadership. However, there is one concept that, if implemented, could actually move us backward. That’s the risk assessment that’s called for in the statement, “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.” The call to lead has never been the safe path. Done well, it requires courage, including the courage to lose your position if that’s required by a principled stand. I can’t imagine a situation involving caring for others that doesn’t demand taking that stand.