#167 – “Leading Faithfully” Basics – The “WHY” Wave

ESSENCE: A “WHY” wave seems to be building momentum in the United States, together with an undercurrent of mainstream cultural events tied to Biblical faith.  That “WHY” wave represents a cultural momentum toward finding purpose and meaning in life and work (which God designed as an integral part of life), and we choose to see an undercurrent of faith in the culture as representing a “glass half-full” openness of people to faith as a source of purpose and meaning.  Although the WHY behind this “WHY” wave is not the bigger WHY that defines business a better way in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities, this confluence represents an opportunity for faithful leaders to offer their employees a transcendent WHY–a WHY that does align with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities. It is the WHY implanted in every human by their creator and the only WHY that will maximize human flourishing.  It is a WHY of glorifying God by Humanizing People and Beautifying the World.

“Leading Faithfully” Basics is about going back and re-examining the basics of leading faithfully through business a better way–business in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.

With headlines suggesting faith is under unceasing attack by an increasingly secular society, it might be easy to conclude that leading faithfully through business a better way, aligning an organization’s purpose, values and culture with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities, would be business suicide–alienating stakeholders such as employees and customers.  We believe that would wrongly be missing the “WHY” wave that appears to be building momentum in the United States.  It would also be missing some interesting mainstream cultural events tied to Biblical faith.

We believe the glass is half-full!

The “WHY” Wave

In 2014, Simon Sinek gave what would become one of the most popular TED talks of all time.  His talk entitled How Great Leaders Inspire Action has been viewed nearly 62 million times.  It was based on his 2009 book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action which has sold more than 1 million copies.  We believe the popularity of Sinek’s talk and book is rooted in a desire God planted in every human to find the greater purpose of their life and their work, which God designed as an integral part of human life.

A number of important societal trends are absolutely in line with pursuing a bigger “WHY” for business (after decades of a focus on “shareholder primacy” after Milton Friedman’s declaration in 1970 that “There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits”):

• People (particularly young people) are increasingly seeking greater purpose from work:

• Witness the rise of the “B-Corp” model (which we actually believe is counterproductive to business a better way because it involves the government in overseeing the pursuit of a company’s broader goals and, more importantly, reinforces the faulty claim that other corporations can legally only pursue the maximization of profit).

• Gallup’s 2016 report on “How Millennials Want to Work and Live” listed as its #1 “functional change” that millennials “want to work for organizations with a mission and purpose”.  In the book Completing Capitalism: Heal Business to Heal the World, the authors note a survey of employees by the Mars Corporation finding that working for a company actually living out its stated values was worth 30% in pay.

• Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, wrote “For millennials, work must have meaning. . . .  The emphasis for this generation has switched from paycheck to purpose–and so must your culture.

• In 2016, the Modern Corporation Project issued a Statement on Company Law signed by dozens of legal experts refuting the misconception that corporate law requires the maximization of profits for shareholders.

• In 2018, BlackRock (the world’s largest investor) issued a letter stating that companies needed to benefit all stakeholders.

• In 2019, the Business Roundtable did an about-face by announcing that businesses should be committed to meeting the needs of all their stakeholders (since 1997, the Business Roundtable had endorsed a “shareholder primacy” view of corporate responsibility).

• In 2019, the World Economic Forum published the Davos Manifesto declaring that “The purpose of a company is to engage all its stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation. In creating such value, a company serves not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, local communities and society at large.

• As we described in post #121 (Creation Capitalism), there are dozens of books and organizations devoted to “fixing” capitalism by trying to give it a purpose and meaning beyond profit, using terms such as Virtuous Capitalism, Redeeming Capitalism, Redemptive Capitalism, Stakeholder Capitalism, Inclusive Capitalism, Shared Value Capitalism, Completing Capitalism, Connected Capitalism, and Better Capitalism.

• In 2022, the press was abuzz with headlines about the founder of Patagonia donating the company’s voting stock to a perpetual “purpose” trust and donating the non-voting shares to a private foundation.   Although with less press fascination, the founder of Hobby Lobby reminded the world that Hobby Lobby’s voting shares had been put in a purpose trust years earlier.

• There have been a number of (we believe misguided) U.S. Congressional initiatives to force “stakeholder” capitalism, such as Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act and the launch of a Congressional Stakeholder Capitalism Caucus.

There is a “WHY” wave building momentum that can provide a foothold for business a better way, but it is not the WHY on which business a better way must be grounded.

The WHY of the “WHY” Wave

Unfortunately, the WHY behind this “WHY” wave is not the bigger WHY that defines business a better way in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.

When a secular group like the Business Roundtable declares that business should serve all stakeholders or when a secular-led business decides to take care of its workers or define a purpose, we believe they are usually motivated by what we call hype or hustle, and political and social agendas generally drive politicians and groups like the World Economic Forum.

• What we mean by hype is when an organization’s actions or words toward caring for people are really about impressing or placating third parties such as employees, customers, vendors, owners or regulators.

• What we mean by hustle is when an organization’s actions or words toward caring for people, particularly employees, are really about hustling to attract or retain employees.

Are we being unfairly cynical in suggesting that actions and words about caring for people come from a WHY of hype and hustle when an organization is engaged in business as usual?  Let’s look at what others have observed.

• A recent Wall Street Journal article about the trend toward “mission-driven” companies notes “A big part of it is still about the money, namely chasing consumers’ pocketbooks and trillions of dollars of potential investment from environmental, social and governance funds.

• When the Business Roundtable did an about-face to downplay maximizing shareholder value and stress the importance of other stakeholders, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled “Is There Real Virtue Behind the Business Roundtable’s Signaling?”  Sadly, the authors concluded: “Business Roundtable signatories aren’t leaders in socially conscious environmental, social or governance practices or stakeholder orientation. Instead, the average signatory is more likely to enjoy a large market share, and has an incentive to pre-empt regulatory scrutiny . . . .”

• In 2018, the CEO of BlackRock, Inc., Larry Fink, emphasized in his annual letter to CEOs the need for companies to “benefit all stakeholders” because “society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. . . .  Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential.”  Fink’s 2022 BlackRock letter is much more honest, making clear he is not trying to put a “social purpose” alongside profit.  When rhetoric is pushed aside, his view of “stakeholder capitalism” justifies serving all stakeholders because it maximizes long-term profitability for shareholders.

• In his book Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, author Vivek Ramaswamy takes an in-depth look at hype with some scathing observations, including “Wokenomics is crony capitalism 2.0, and here’s how it works: big business uses progressive-friendly values to deflect attention from its own monolithic pursuit of profit and power.”

• E.S.G. (Environmental, Social, Governance) investing initiatives have come under scrutiny and been subject to much criticism.  For example:

The New York Times recently published an article titled “The Pushback on E.S.G. Investing” noting that “There is a profit motive to E.S.G. . . .  If shoppers and investors are looking for environmentally positive offerings, then it makes sense for businesses to respond“.

A recent Bloomberg article talked about a top executive admitting “His firm’s low-carbon portfolios didn’t address global warming in a robust way. They were instead created simply because of client demand.”

Harvard Business Review published an article in 2021 titled “An ESG Reckoning is Coming”.  It noted “According to research last year, investors who signed onto the United Nations [Principles for Responsible Investment] did not improve the social and environmental performance of their investments. According to the researchers, signatories ‘use the PRI status to attract capital without making notable changes to ESG’.

• Technology companies became famous for the perks and freebies offered to employees.  During the tight labor market created by the Great Resignation (which we explained in post #120  should really be called the Great De-Humanization), companies began offering additional benefits, including the flexibility to work remotely, to attract and retain employees.  The real WHY behind these “caring” actions and initiatives is becoming evident as the economy declined and the labor market loosened.  As we detailed in post #159 (Caring for People–Heart, Hype or Hustle), perks, freebies and benefits are being eliminated or reduced in the name of “efficiency”, often in response to the demands of activist shareholders.

While hype and hustle describe much of the “WHY” wave from an employer standpoint, there are certainly leaders and organization’s driven by a desire to “do the right thing”.  We do believe that God has implanted every human with what Tim Keller calls “first-order beliefs” such as “honesty, justice, love, the Golden Rule“– a “universal knowledge of God and of good“.  Their efforts are often aimed at trying to address areas of economic, social and human brokenness caused by business as usual.  Make no mistake, this is “doing good”.

But “doing good” while maximizing profit is not business a better way.  Only one can be the real WHY.  Matthew 6:24 makes clear that a person can have only one primary identity and an organization can have only one ultimate priority:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

As it says in 1 Samuel 16:7, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart'”.  Faithfully “doing right” means doing the right thing, in the right ways, and for the right reasonsDoing the right thing for the wrong reasons looks good and probably “does good”, but it is missing business a better way–it is missing God’s heart for our work.  

Author and pastor Frederick Buechner astutely observed:

“A man can be basically interested in nothing so much as feathering his own nest and still give generously to the Cancer Fund, be on the Board of Deacons, run for town office, and have a soft spot in his heart for children and animals.”

For millennials, work must have meaning. (Jim Clifton)

A “Faith” Undercurrent

Despite headlines emphasizing the decline of religion and church attendance in America and amplifying protests of faith-inspired companies like Chick-fil-A, polls and surveys actually suggest that Americans still have faith and seem to welcome Biblical principles in business.

• In a 2022 Gallup poll, 81% of Americans said they believe in God.

• A 2011 Barna study found: for every American who said they were less likely to buy a product from a company that “manages its business according to Christian principles”, 14 people were more likely to buy; and the same ratio was 12:1 for a business that “embraces and promotes” the Christian faith.

There have also been some recent mainstream cultural events tied to Biblical faith that we believe should further encourage faithful leaders to be bold in leading faithfully through business a better way.  For example:

• We believe the tremendous success of The Chosen reinforces the idea that people are at least curious about Biblical faith.  According to one independent estimate, over 108 million people had watched at least one episode as of the end of 2022.

• The recently released film The Jesus Revolution about the “Jesus Movement”, starring Kelsey Grammer, far exceeded expectations in its opening weekends.

• A new Broadway-style musical called His Story: The Musical is opening in Dallas in May 2023 about the life of Jesus (in the style of Hamilton).  It was written by a devout Christian, but it is being produced and directed by non-Christian Broadway professionals who were profoundly moved by the music.

The WHY That Matters

Simon Sinek talks about “inspiring action” with a “WHY”.   In his book For Goodness Sake, Chris Houston asserts:

A healthy culture cannot fruitfully emerge until business leaders can discover and tap into their employees’ aspirations to do something meaningful through their work.

What better way to inspire human beings than with the WHY that they were created to pursue. Some things in God’s word are complicated and others are straightforward.  Perhaps one of the most straightforward is our ultimate WHY:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

People glorify God by living out Imago Dei, fulfilling the Creation Mandate and living out the Golden Rule and the commandments to love God and love your neighbor.  Organizations glorify God by creating a platform for people to do that together in ways they could never do alone.  We simplify it to Humanizing People and Beautifying the World.

The “WHY” wave represents a cultural momentum toward finding purpose and meaning, and we choose to see the undercurrent of faith in the culture as representing a “glass half-full” openness of people to faith as a source of purpose and meaning (rather than merely a “glass half-empty” decline in religion).

We believe this confluence represents an opportunity for faithful leaders to offer their employees a transcendent WHY–a WHY that aligns with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.  It is the WHY implanted in every human by their creator.

PERSONAL NOTE (from PM):  My wife and I recently took a vacation to Playa Grande in Costa Rica.  It is a surf mecca (we are not surfers).  The waves inspired the title of this post, but I also couldn’t stop thinking about rip currents.  When waves come from different directions and converge, they can create a current that carries people out to sea. I have always known rip currents are dangerous.  What I learned was that surfers use the rip currents to take them out, saving effort.

What if faithful leaders could be like surfers and find where the WHY wave and the faith undercurrent come together to form a rip current that would catapult faithful leadership and business a better way?

Copyright © 2023 Integrous LLC.  Integriosity is a registered Service Mark of Integrous LLC.

Photo Credit: Original photo by Matt Paul Catalano on Unsplash (photo cropped)