Lead Like It Matters to God

Richard StearnsBy Richard Stearns23 Minutes

Excerpt from Lead Like It Matters to God: Values-Driven Leadership in a Success-Driven World by Richard Stearns. Taken from Chapter 8, “Humility: The Executive Toilet”


God taught me a rather humorous lesson about humility on my first day as CEO of Lenox. After eight years of hard work, I had finally been promoted to the top job, and this was the day I would occupy the luxurious corner office for the very first time. It had a desk as big as a battleship, original paintings on the wall, and—wait for it—its own private executive bathroom. I remember getting up early that first day because I couldn’t wait to get to work. And so, I arrived around seven, before anyone else on my wing was there. I sat at that imposing desk for the first time and opened my Bible for a quiet time with the Lord, praying that he would guide me and support me in my new responsibilities. I was feeling quite pleased about my new status.

But after my first cup of coffee, nature called, so I walked proudly into my gleaming new executive bathroom, yet another symbol that I had finally “arrived.” And that’s when it happened. When I flushed, I saw with dread in my heart that the water was not going down, it was rising. I had plugged the toilet. My next anxious flush (a rookie mistake) made it even worse, as the water started to crest toward the rim. That’s when panic set in. How mortifying to have to tell my administrative assistant to call the maintenance department because the brand-new CEO had plugged his toilet. That story would spread around the building like wildfire.

But wait, I wasn’t sunk yet; my racing mind had an idea. I dashed to my door and looked both ways to see if anyone had arrived. Not yet—whew! I ran down the hallway opening every closet door I could find, looking for the one object that might rescue me from humiliation—a plunger. Nothing in the first closet, so I ran to the second. Nothing in the second closet either. Panic! But in the third closet, I struck pay dirt: sitting in the far corner was a glorious plunger! Hallelujah! I grabbed it, peeked surreptitiously out the door, looked both ways again, and ran back to my office, safely closing the door behind me. I was almost home. After a few tries, the plunger worked its magic, and the toilet flushed. Relief washed over me. . . . that is until I realized that I was still holding the plunger in my hand. Now I had to get rid of the “murder weapon.” And so, I repeated my frantic routine of spying out the hallway and then rushing down the corridor to the closet to redeposit the incriminating plunger.

When I finally got safely back to my desk I collapsed into my chair, sweating profusely but relieved. And then I literally laughed out loud. I don’t know if God plays practical jokes on us, but I’m pretty sure he was behind this one. “Lord, apparently on my big day, you felt that I needed a little bit of humbling.” I felt like God was saying to me, “Okay, Mr. Bigshot, yes, you’re the CEO now, but just remember that you are no different and no more special than anyone else who works at Lenox. I am the one who placed you there, and if you become too full of yourself, I can also take you out.”

This silly little episode served as a vivid reminder to me of the sin of pride, which can so easily rear its ugly head as we experience success. This is why humility in a leader is an all-too-rare quality. Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life, said this of humility: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” I resonate with the truth of this statement because it suggests that humility does not require us to deny the positive gifts and talents we possess but rather to recognize that those gifts and talents are given to us by God for a purpose. Are you creative, charismatic, eloquent, intuitive, intelligent, politically astute? If you are any of those things it is because God has bestowed those gifts on you. And they have been entrusted to you to steward in ways that bring glory to God and further his purposes, not to use for your own glory and self-aggrandizement.

A leader’s first responsibility is the well-being of the people he or she is entrusted to lead. Think again of a coach or a symphony conductor. Their job is to bring the best out of the players or musicians in their care. The second greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves, suggests that we as leaders must care as much about the welfare of those we lead as we do our own.

There is a passage in Deuteronomy that addresses this very real tendency toward pride as we experience success and prosperity. God, through Moses, gave a strong admonition to the Israelites just before they entered the Promised Land, reminding them of their total dependence on God. Remember, they had just spent forty years wandering in the wilderness with God sustaining them by miraculously providing them with manna every single day—for more than fourteen thousand days! One would think that the message of dependence on God would have sunk in by then. But Moses wanted to make sure they had learned the lesson. Moses warns them not to become arrogant as they transition from the ordeal of the wilderness to the prosperity of the Promised Land and to remember the one who led them there.

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. (Deuteronomy 8:10-18)

God was essentially warning Israel about the dangers of success and prosperity. He reminded them not to be prideful because their very ability to create wealth and success came from God, and he warned them never to believe that they could truly prosper apart from God.

I believe that one of the greatest traps that leaders fall into is believing their own press clippings: “I must be great because other people are saying so. And look what I have accomplished.” Leadership always comes with power, and power has a way of going to our heads. We feel the affirmation of those who selected us for our leadership position and the esteem of those we now lead. Pride easily takes root in the soil of leadership. And pride begins to disconnect us from God.

A prideful leader becomes arrogant, impressed with their own abilities and giftedness, forgetting that all these things were bestowed on them by God. A prideful leader thinks primarily of their own status and success to the detriment of others. But humble leaders seek the success of the entire team. Prideful leaders listen only to their own counsel, while humble leaders listen to the counsel of many. Prideful leaders see other people as a means to their desired ends, but the humble leader sees the welfare of his or her people as an end unto itself.

We have all seen examples of leaders who are self-centered and full of themselves. Such people are all too common in our workplaces and in the public square. They often act as if the normal rules don’t apply to them. They justify their bad behavior based on their own sense of superiority, and they often leave behind them a wake of destruction. Often, but not always, their arrogant behavior leads to their downfall, but not before great damage has been done to the institution they led and the other people who worked there. And I think I can say with confidence, no one wants to be led by an arrogant, self-important leader.

Easier Said Than Done

So how does one become a humble leader? How does one avoid the temptations of power, success, and self-importance? Once again, it begins with surrender: “Not my will, Lord, but thy will. How can I better know, love, and serve you in the place you have put me?” As I have said more than once, surrender of our will is a lifelong process, and it requires that we keep our relationship with God fresh each day by spending time in his Word and in prayer.

But there are some practical things we can do as well. As you lead others, give them permission to challenge your thinking and to disagree with you when they believe they have a better idea. Don’t allow yourself to become the “emperor without clothes” whom people are afraid to speak truth to. Embrace the fact that God has distributed gifts and talents to all the people on your team, and that if you can release all of their gifts and talents you will make better decisions and accomplish greater things than the leader who embodies a “my way or the highway” attitude.

Taking this approach will require daily reinforcement. It has been my experience that people are always somewhat intimidated by—even fearful of—the boss. They are not likely to take the risk of disagreeing with you unless they feel completely safe in doing so. And the first time you bite their head off for disagreeing with you is the last time they will risk expressing a better idea or a different way. But if they see that their idea actually changed your mind or influenced the outcome of a decision, they will be emboldened to contribute more ideas. I would sometimes start a meeting by stating that I wanted to hear everyone’s opinions and that I hoped we could have an open debate about the issues we were going to discuss. I specifically asked people to challenge my ideas and push back when they disagreed. I even told them that they weren’t very helpful to me if they wouldn’t disagree when they felt I was wrong. You have to work at creating this kind of positive culture on your team. Surround yourself with smart people, give them permission to challenge you, and show them that you value what they have to say. And be sure to give them credit when their contributions have made a difference.

When I became the CEO of Parker Brothers Games, one of the challenges I faced was trying to lead a group of vice presidents who were more than twenty years older than me. It was difficult for me, as I’m sure working for someone so much younger was difficult for them. Within days I could feel the undercurrents of resentment in the ranks. I understood that attempting to command them to respect me wouldn’t work, so instead I sought to earn their respect. I spoke about the importance of each member of the leadership team to our success. And I talked about pulling together to face our challenges. I felt like I was making some progress, with the exception of one holdout: Bill, the vice president of sales and a critical member of our team. Bill was in his mid-fifties and had more than thirty years of experience in the toy industry. He knew everyone and was highly and widely regarded. But I could tell from Bill’s body language that he did not support my appointment to the presidency.

So, one day I walked into his office, shut the door, and asked if we could talk. I said something like this: “Bill, I can tell that you were not pleased that I was appointed as president. I get it. But you need to know that I did not seek this job and that I also fully understand that I was not ready for it. Nevertheless, I was asked by our parent company to step into this role. I know this much: I cannot succeed, and the company cannot succeed, unless we all come together as a team. I have great respect for you. You are a critical leader here. You have forgotten more about the toy industry than I will ever know. And I most definitely cannot succeed without your wisdom, advice, and support. So I am asking today for your help. Will you give it to me?” Bill paused to consider what I had said, then looked me in the eye and extended his hand to shake mine. “I can work with that,” he said. From that day on I had Bill’s full support. The price of his support? Showing some humility.

Another First Day in the Corner Office

A few years after the executive-toilet episode at Lenox I had another first day in a corner office. This time it was twenty-five hundred miles away at World Vision, near Seattle. After multiple panic attacks over leaving my career behind and nervously following God’s call into a job for which I had few qualifications, I found myself coming in early again to my new corner office on my first day. But this time I was in a very different place emotionally. Instead of being puffed up about being the new CEO at World Vision, I was terrified. I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of leading an organization on which millions of children depended for life itself. I felt totally unprepared to lead a team of people who knew far more about global poverty than I did. I had no experience with these issues. I had been selling fine china to the wealthy just a few days earlier, for heaven’s sake. In short, I felt completely helpless and inadequate.

And so, that morning I sat at my desk and literally cried out to God. “Lord, it took every ounce of courage I have just to show up here today. I have no idea what to do or how to lead in this place. I am unqualified and unprepared for what lies ahead. Help me, Lord, please help me!” I was kind of pitiful, literally whimpering to God from my new corner office. And that’s when I came about as close as I ever had to hearing God’s voice. This is what I heard: “Rich, I have you exactly where I want you, helpless and totally dependent on me. I have worked for twenty-five years to bring you to this place of total surrender. You have been obedient, and now I want you to trust me and watch what I will do. I’ve got this, Rich.” And I realized at that moment the truth of Paul’s dialogue with God about weakness: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). You see, God isn’t impressed with our strength; he wants us humbled and totally dependent on him in our weakness. Only then do we have full access to God’s power working through us. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

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Taken from Lead Like It Matters To God  by Richard Stearns. Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard E. Stearns. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com