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#LeadingJesusWay: Executives committed to servant leadership

An interview with Mark Deterding
By J. Daniel Rollins

For the past five years, a small group of CEOs in Minnesota have been retooling their company cultures toward Jesus-centric servant leadership, with significant results. An interview with Mark Deterding, author of the book Leading Jesus' Way, examines the faith-based servant leadership model these executives are using.

Christian Courier: How is God making his presence known in Minnesota’s business environment?
Mark Deterding:
Since 2012, God has been at work in the hearts and minds of four prominent CEOs in Alexandria, Minnesota: Tom Schabel of Alexandria Industries; Mark Anderson of Knute Nelson; Brent Smith of Aagard Group; and Peter Nelson of Glenwood State Bank.

These executives have whole-heartedly adopted a Jesus-centered approach to leadership. They’ve recognized that their true purpose as leaders is to serve others: to lift other people up, support them and encourage them just as Jesus did when he walked the earth.

Over the last five years, these leaders have become so inspired and passionate about faith-based servant leadership. In fact, they’ve taken steps to integrate it into every aspect of their companies’ cultures. As they’ve done this, thousands of their employees’ lives have been changed for the better – not just professionally, but also personally. Their people talk openly about how much better they now function as husbands, wives, parents, siblings and as leaders in their communities. The multiplier effect of letting God out of the box in the workplace is truly amazing.

What steps did these CEOs take to more closely model Jesus in how they lead?
Tom, Mark, Brent and Peter each took several steps to invite Jesus “in” as their personal leadership coach. The most critical step they took, however, was to build their personal leadership foundation, through articulating – among other things – their primary purpose as leaders.

Too many executives wake up every morning without a clear understanding of their purpose in life. “Why do I get out of bed in the morning?” they ask themselves. Or, “I feel like I’m meant for something more, but what?” Or even, “Why do I exist in this time, in this place?”

Because leaders don’t understand their purpose, they struggle to build success and significance among the people they lead and for the organizations they serve. As a result, they never find soul-deep satisfaction in their leadership roles. This lack of satisfaction becomes infectious: spreading to the people they lead, impacting their employees’ performance and their organization’s bottom-line business results.

To discover their unique leadership purpose, Tom, Mark, Brent and Peter answered three questions: what you do, for whom you do it, and why? After spending several years helping people with this piece of work, I believe that you don’t create your own purpose. You discern your purpose within the context of God’s perfect, loving vision for your life.

Here is what that discernment looked like for the CEOs in Alexandria, Minnesota:    

          1. They prayed for God’s guidance on the process, trusting that he would provide clarity on his mission for them while on earth.
          2. They documented the personal strengths, skills and talents that God had gifted them with.
          3. They documented those things they valued highly and/or held sacred.
          4. They prioritized those two lists and then determined what they were most passionate about.
          5. They documented what they wanted to be remembered for (their legacy).
          6. Considering these reflections, they put together a purpose statement that illustrated who they were, what they valued, what they were going to provide and for what reason this work would be done.

After determining their purpose, these leaders took additional steps to live out that purpose, using Jesus as a model for their actions.

Once they personally adopted Jesus as their leadership model, how did these leaders spread servant leadership throughout their organizations?
Each CEO brought God into their workplaces differently. For one leader, letting God out of the box meant starting each day in private prayer. For another, it meant hiring a pastor as a core member of the leadership team. There is no “one size fits all” to inviting Jesus into your organization.

However, there is one action that every one of these CEOs did take. They all exposed their employees to faith-based servant leadership. That exposure ranged from assigning each employee to read Leading Jesus’ Way to leveraging online training to hiring translators to interpret their employees’ face-to-face training with me.

What about the employees in these companies who aren’t Christian?
According to the CEOs of these companies, the fundamental principles of faith-based servant leadership resonate with people, regardless of their individual religious affiliation (or lack of affiliation).

That said, as they moved through the piece where they determine their purpose, a few people discovered that their purpose actually led them away from the company. In each of these cases, the CEOs were extremely supportive. They were actually thrilled to support these people to take steps to live out their life purpose more fully!

You mention “significant business results.” Can you give us a few examples?
After five years of committed faith-based servant leadership, Alexandria Industries experienced an 85 percent growth in sales and a 75 percent increase in earnings with only a 22 percent increase in the number of employees. Knute Nelson served 182 percent more people, increased sales by 135 percent, and employee engagement by 17 percent. Aagard Group had a 108 percent increase in sales with a 71 percent increase in the number of employees. And Glenwood State Bank was named “Best Company to Work for” for two years running.

What guidance would you give executives who want to forge a culture of faith-based servant leadership?
A first step would be to get my blog delivered straight to their inboxes (triuneleadershipservices.com/blog)! Every week, I am committed to sharing powerful faith-based servant leadership practices to help people model Jesus in their most challenging leadership situations.

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