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Good leaders can change the world

An interview with Rich Stearns on his new book "Lead Like it Matters to God"

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June 16, 2021

Rich Stearns, former president of World Vision U.S., has been a leader for a long time. Over the course of his life and career, serving within several organizations, he’s learned some important lessons about leadership, but none more important than being a leader with character and, as a Christian, one who is preoccupied with the will and way of God.

In his new book, Lead Like it Matters to God: Values-Driven Leadership in a Success-Driven World, Stearns outlines many of those lessons learned, encouraging readers to embrace a cross-shaped leadership model. In our world today, where leadership failings, missteps, and sins seem ever before us, Stearns’ vision of leadership is a challenging, yet gracious and encouraging call for the Christian to lead in a Christlike way.

Stearnes was kind enough to spend time answering a few of our questions about his book and his time as a leader. 

As you mention early in your book, there are a lot of leadership books that have been written. So, what compelled you to write this leadership book? What do you hope that it accomplishes?

I wanted to write a book on the critical importance of character in our leaders — especially in Christian leaders. Corporate scandals, the #MeToo movement, the coarseness of our politics, and scandals within churches and ministries are all the result of leaders of poor character who have abused their power. And, we live in a world where the temptations of success, influence, and financial rewards are all around us. Success and the drive to achieve it can become idols in our lives that cause leaders to stray from any sense of a moral compass. The result of this ‘unanchored leadership’ can be catastrophic for organizations and the people who work in them. 

Mother Teresa once said something profound — something that redefines success for a Christian: “God did not call me to be successful, he called me to be faithful.” Christian leaders, whether in ministry or in the marketplace, need to intentionally resist the lure of money, fame, and success and anchor themselves in the character of Christ. For Christian leaders, faithfulness is success, and success is faithfulness.

You say that “good leaders can change the world in remarkable ways.” Whether in business, church life, or in the home, why is good leadership so important, and what are some of the dangers of leadership done poorly?

Virtually everything that is accomplished in our world is the result of leaders who organize and direct groups of people to achieve something that none of them could have achieved alone. Whether bringing a product to market, passing important legislation, or building a church or ministry, leadership is the key ingredient that makes all of these things possible. But when a leader lacks integrity, uses people to achieve their own success, puts profit ahead of people, or is manipulative and abusive, the results can be devastating. 

Look at the opioid pandemic, where corporate leadership kept pushing more and more opioids through the healthcare system even after they knew that their own customers were becoming addicted and even dying. Or, closer to home, look at some of the church and ministry leadership failures that harmed thousands of people and discredited the name of Christ. For the Christian leader, your character matters much more to God than your achievements. God is not impressed by the title on your business card, the size of your bank account, or even the growth rate of your ministry. God is looking for leaders after his own heart — leaders who are winsome ambassadors for Jesus Christ.

As a Christian, you advocate for some very distinct leadership principles that may not often find their way into an environment like corporate America. For example, you begin with surrender. For Christians (again, whether in business, church life, or in the home), why is “surrender the place where leadership must begin?”

When we first place our faith in Jesus Christ, we are called to surrender our lives to him — not my will Lord, but thy will. And God is not interested in a partial surrender subject to a long list of conditions. Some of us would prefer not to surrender our finances, our careers, or our ambitions. But God calls us to sacrifice our ambitions for his ambitions for us. And once we fully surrender those things to God, it is very freeing. We can rise above the typical workplace stresses and politics because we have already handed those things over to the Lord. We might receive promotions and advancement, or we might not. Either way, we have entrusted those things to God. Again, in the words of Mother Teresa, “God did not call us to be successful, he called us to be faithful.” 

If we truly want to be used by God to further his kingdom, it starts with surrender. I believe that there are pastors of very small churches, who have been faithfully surrendered to God for decades, who will receive greater praise from God than some megachurch pastors who have built huge churches driven by their own ambition. Again, God is more interested in a leader’s character than a leader’s accomplishments. Success is not the goal.

One section that stood out to me was your chapter on courage. What role does courage play in leadership?

Leaders are often called on to make consequential decisions. Sometimes those decisions come with a cost. For example, during the COVID pandemic, many business leaders were forced to choose between protecting profits or protecting people. It took courage for leaders to put people first and then deal with criticism from shareholders or constituents. Elected officials had to decide on COVID protocols that inevitably brought praise from some and criticism from others. 

In Scripture, think of the courage it required for Joshua to enter the Promised Land with armies arrayed against him, or for the 12 disciples to lead the early church in the face of horrific persecution. We often overlook the fact that 11 of the disciples died violent deaths as martyrs. It often takes courage for a leader to do the right thing — the thing that puts people above profits or politics or personal gain.

In the early 2000s when the AIDS pandemic was killing millions in Africa and leaving a whole generation of orphans behind, World Vision had to decide whether to help. It sounds like a no-brainer today, but at the time, AIDS was deeply stigmatized in the U.S. as a ‘culture war’ issue, and polling showed only 3%  of evangelicals in America said they were ‘definitely’ willing to help children orphaned by AIDS. In other words, most of World Vision’s donors were opposed to getting involved with the victims of AIDS. We had to decide whether to do the right thing or the expedient thing, risking the relationships with our church partners and donors. We believed that caring for widows and orphans in their distress was the right thing — even if it was extremely unpopular. 

Over the next five years, we campaigned tirelessly, raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help victims of AIDS, and helped to change the attitude of American Christians toward the issue. But at the beginning, it took courage.

How can a leader or prospective leader cultivate courage?

It’s important to understand that courage does not mean that we have no fears; it means that we try to do the right thing anyway. But the most important thing for leaders is to be deeply rooted in God’s truth. I mentioned the importance of a moral compass to help leaders navigate the blizzard of challenges and decisions they will have to make. That moral compass comes from embracing the love of Christ and the character of Christ in our own lives. 

The old WWJD bracelets had it right: what would Jesus do? That question should always be on the lips of a Christian leader. And, of course, the only way for us to become more Christlike is the lifelong process of discipleship — and again, surrender to his will for our lives.

You also discuss a leader’s role in creating/casting vision, which you call one of the chief tasks of leadership. Would you call vision-casting a skill? If so, how can leaders grow in this area?

Vison-casting sounds like a kind of ‘prophesying’ skill, but in the context of an organization, it is really just about defining the desired future for that organization. Where are we now, and where do we want to be three or five years from now?  What are the things we will need to achieve to get there, what steps do we need to take in what sequence, and what are the values we will embrace on the journey? 

One of the key jobs of the leader is first, to help the organization decide on these things, and then to clearly articulate and model them. It’s a little like the GPS in your car: where am I now, what is my destination, and what are the steps I will need to take to get there? If a leader fails to bring clarity around these things, the organization can drift aimlessly without any clear sense of where they are headed. 

And it is critical for the leader to ‘own’ that vision — to constantly model and communicate it by ‘eating, drinking and sleeping’ the vision in full view of the organization. The best-led organizations have clarity about where they are headed. 

How can vision-casting be applied to the home and family?

I think many of the same principles apply to our family life. Who are we as a family? What do we believe, and what values do we share? Do we teach and model honesty, integrity, excellence, compassion, humility, courage, respect, and perseverance to our kids? As parents, how can we ‘eat, drink, and sleep’ these values in front of our children so that they will have clarity about who we are as followers of Christ?

In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to God’s people just before they enter the Promised Land, and he exhorts them to live their lives according to God’s values and purposes: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9). That’s not a bad prescription for equipping our children with God’s Word.  

As you survey the state of society today, what challenges should Christians be prepared to face as they assume positions of leadership?

First and foremost, Christian leaders need to understand that their most important job is to represent Christ wherever they live and work. The verse I had stenciled on my office wall at World Vision was 2 Corinthians 5:20: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God is making his appeal through us.” 

Whatever title you have on your business card is superseded by your responsibility to be an ambassador for Christ. Once that becomes the bedrock of your leadership, you will be better able to resist the gravitational pull of the workplace culture, the ever-present drive for success that permeates our culture, and the temptations of money, power, and influence that can so easily lead you astray. You have surrendered those things to the Lord. When you do this, you may be ‘the odd man out’ in your place of work, but that’s exactly what we are called to be as believers. We are to be ‘salt and light’ in our culture and ‘the fragrance of Christ’ in our workplaces and communities. We should stand out.

Looking back over your career as a leader, what are one or two key things that God taught you through your vocation?

Our character is our witness. We live and work in front of a watching world. What will they see when they look at our lives, our conduct, and our values? What are we modeling? 

I’ve learned that God wants us to take our faith to work with us. The places we live and work are the places where God has intentionally stationed us to be his ambassadors. And when we live out our Christian convictions authentically, we can become an encouragement to our neighbors and co-workers, and an island in the storm for people who are struggling. Our career is the place we live out our calling.

Leadership is often described as difficult or challenging or even lonely. And though this may be true, each of these carries with it a subtle negative tone. I’m curious, what would you say are the joys of leadership?

The Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1924 Olympic Games, Eric Liddell, once said: “God made me, and God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” When we exercise our God-given abilities and talents in our places of work, God wants us to feel his pleasure. He has given us leadership responsibility over a group of people and wants us to rejoice at seeing each of them realize their own God-given potential. Think of the joy an orchestra conductor feels at bringing the beautiful music out of her musicians.  Leadership can be incredibly gratifying when we see our job as helping those around us release their talents to achieve their own dreams and ambitions. 

What encouragement would you give to younger leaders who aim to serve faithfully within their sphere of influence?

There is a truth I discovered late in my career that I wish I had better understood as a younger leader. What God is doing through us involves us, but does not depend on us. Let me say that again: what God is doing through you, involves you but does not depend on you. What do I mean by that? When we surrender our lives and careers to God, we can trust him for the outcome. 

In Scripture, David was involved in slaying Goliath, but it did not depend on David. Moses was involved in leading God’s people out of Egypt, but it did not depend on Moses. And Peter, an uneducated fisherman, was called to lead and establish the early church in a hostile world, but it did not depend on Peter. Once you understand that God will use you wherever you work if you are truly faithful to him,  you can relax and enjoy the journey — because God is looking to use leaders after his own heart in powerful ways. Remember, faithfulness is success for the Christian leader.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author