Jesus may not have been a first-century CEO, but the way he led his team and accomplished his goals offers important lessons for today’s business leaders, says Nancy Ortberg, a speaker, author and leadership consultant who works with businesses, schools, nonprofits and churches to address issues of organizational effectiveness and teamwork.
Ortberg (’78, M.A. ’83), an alumna of both Biola and Talbot School of Theology, has served with her husband, John, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area since 2003, and previously served for eight years at Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburbs. She’s passionate about helping leaders and organizations maximize their gifts and meet their goals.
Biola Magazine connected with Ortberg to talk about what Christians can learn from Jesus about leadership, whether in ministry or in business, and what it might mean to be a countercultural Christian leader in today’s business world.
Nancy, you were a student at Talbot at a time when there were very few women there. What were the challenges of that experience?
I think there were six of us women in Talbot when I was a student, and I think we felt like our own little tribe. The No. 1 question I got asked by the men was, “And tell me what you are doing here?” There were certain tension points for sure, but for the most part I felt pretty comfortable at Talbot. I was pretty clear on why I was there and what I wanted to do, and I enjoyed my experience quite a bit.
What would you say particularly to female students at Biola today who may aspire to positions of influence and leadership?
One of the best things that tears down obstacles in leadership, whether it’s gender issues or anything else, is just getting the job done. I don’t wake up every morning thinking, “I’m a woman and I’m a leader.” I don’t spend time thinking about my gender as an obstacle. I’m sure it has been at some level, but I think being a good leader, doing the right thing, getting good results — those are the things that gain you the right to take the next step. I would say focusing a little bit less on gender as an obstacle and a little bit more on getting really great results is probably the best approach.
Are there ways that Christian organizations can grow in the way they value women?
I would say add more women to the leadership. Put them into play in the same way you would a man. Let them lead. I think it speaks also to the overarching issue of diversity, whether it’s ethnic or economic or gender. God has placed leadership gifts in people who don’t look like each other, and that’s a great thing. One of the signs of a great leader is they don’t need people who are just like them. They welcome and seek a diversity on their team that will end up giving them better results in the long term.
Expand on that a bit. What are the benefits of diversity in leadership?
When you look at the Gospels and think about the people that Jesus chose to be his closest 12 disciples, you have a zealot who wanted the overthrow of Roman rule, and you have a tax collector. Already God is telling us, “Hey, watch what I can do with a group of people who you would never even put in the same room together.” In Acts, Peter and John are described as unschooled, ordinary men. It doesn’t take a deep reading of the Bible to understand that Jesus is intentionally putting together a disparate group of people, and part of it is showing that God can work with just about any team of 12 leaders. One reflection of the nature of God is in the diversity of people and the gifts God gives to them. Part of the job of a leader is to build that kind of diversity on your team, for the scope and outcome of your leadership. Healthy and necessary conflict will arise. You can’t put a diverse team together and be conflict avoidant. You have to lean in to that conflict and get everyone to work together, but the results are jaw-dropping amazing.
What are some other takeaways on leadership that we can glean from the way Jesus led his team?
Certainly there was the “with” factor. Jesus spent time with his team. He was present in their lives. They did ordinary things together and they did extraordinary things together. In good leadership there’s this combination of knowing and encouraging and challenging and stretching, and everything in between. It’s about not saying, “I’m just going to be an encouraging leader” or “I’m just going to give difficult feedback,” but really being able to do both. This is something I think Jesus really reflects in his leadership. It’s so easy to think of Jesus just as this humble, nice guy, and of course he is that. But he challenged the disciples and was very direct. He used the full gamut of tools to lead people, and we can learn from that.
Do you find that in Christian workplaces there is a tendency to be too nice or too afraid of conflict?
Oh yes. There is a tendency to be conflict avoidant, to be superficial, to be frustrated with a person and then talk about that frustration with everyone but the person. I don’t know how conflict avoidance and Christianity came to be so linked, but it has been to the detriment of our leadership. By the same token, Daniel Goleman in his research on emotional intelligence says there should be a 5-to-1 ratio for a healthy relationship: For every one difficult thing you tell someone, are you observing and pouring into them five other pieces of encouragement? Do you have an environment where you see the great stuff people are doing and reflect it back to them, while at the same time earning the right to say, “I have something difficult I need to talk about; do you have five minutes?” Feedback is a kind of respect. It means, “I know you are an adult and you can handle this.”
Are there useful things pastors and church leaders can learn from the business world? Or is it dangerous to think of the church as a business?
I believe God can gift people for business just as he gifts people for the pastorate. Great leadership is great leadership no matter where it is done, whether in the boardroom or on the elder board at a church. For the most part, to give your mind and your heart and your work over to vision, mission, strategy, goals, accountability and conflict … these are all great gifts God has given us for our relational and organizational world. The church is an organization, so there are many components that by necessity have to run like a business. It is not a business in the sense of a profit-making industry, or it shouldn’t be, but there are many correlations between running a great organization and running a great business.
There have been many notable instances of powerful Christian leaders falling in very dramatic ways, often because of a moral failure. What can churches or Christian organizations do to help prevent this from happening? What should leaders do to guard themselves against the corruptions of power?
I don’t think we can totally prevent it; it’s the nature of our broken world. Accountability is important, but it can only do what the person allows it to do. It’s very difficult to hold someone accountable for something they are intent on hiding. I think the bottom line is, how do you protect yourself from the implications of power? Because they are insidious. One of the phrases we use in our business is, “The higher up you go in an organization, the less truth you will hear.” People on staff and elder boards in churches must get comfortable with reflecting back their honest assessment of their leaders. I think our fear causes us to avoid people in power, but I think we must be vigilant about treating people on the same plane in as many ways as we can.
Are there ways that Christians can be countercultural in the way they act as leaders? What are the most important ways Christians can be different?
I think the key is that we are different in important ways — in ways that matter, not just different for the sake of being different. We should be servant leaders, students of the Other. When people are on our teams we shouldn’t think of ourselves as more important, but rather we should spend the day pouring into them. That’s pretty countercultural. Christian leaders should also not take credit for everything, because the reality is you didn’t do it all by yourself. You should give credit where credit is due, get excited about someone’s idea that isn’t yours, and celebrate along the way.
I also think we need to pace ourselves as Christian leaders. We need to realize that God has a plan and pace for us; we should hold our hands open in surrender. The combination of our effort and God’s presence is what does the work, and this is what God laid out in the beginning of Haggai when the people came back from the Babylonian captivity and were so discouraged that the temple was in ruins. God told them to be strong, and so to have courage, to work and know that “I am with you.” That combination of courage, our own efforts — and our efforts matter — and the presence of God, is stellar for God’s people in leadership.
We must also serve the marginalized, in our churches and corporations and businesses, finding ways to serve those on the fringes of society. We must look at those whom society has pushed to the sidelines and do something with them and for them. Our Christian CEOs should be leading the pack in terms of giving back to the most needy in their communities.
About the Expert
Nancy Ortberg (’78, M.A. ’83) is a founding partner of Teamworx2, a business and leadership consulting firm that provides fast-paced, practical and compelling sessions to leaders and their teams. She is the author of Looking for God: An Unexpected Journey through Tattoos, Tofu, and Pronouns and Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands: Lessons in Non-Linear Leadership.