In the second edition of her co-authored book, Graziadio School of Business and Management professor Bernice Ledbetter examines leadership from a perspective of faith.
As far as corporate buzzwords go, leadership has been at the top of many lists for the last few decades. Headlines implore us to consider the morning rituals of effective leaders and analyze the traits, best practices, and values that determine a person’s success in the workplace.
Leadership became an academic course of study in the post-World War II era, when soldiers returned home from service overseas, decorated, distinguished, and a little different than when they left. Their new confidence, bravery, and commitment to country established them as leaders, a term that at the time emphasized a heroism that was mostly transactional and by and large male.
As time moved forward, leadership—by definition and discipline—evolved to suggest a transformative impact on a group as opposed to its traditional interpretations.
“The heroic model of leadership doesn’t work anymore,” says Bernice Ledbetter, director of the Center for Women in Leadership and professor of organizational theory and management at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. “Current generations believe leadership is vested in the group, that diversity is normative, and that everyone’s voice needs to be heard. Everyone has a role to play and everyone can be part of both the conversation and also the enactment.”
This trend shift, a systematic move towards more distributed or shared models of leadership, thus became a gleaming opportunity for academic institutions to ensure that their faculty, staff, and students gained the necessary knowledge and capabilities to lead effectively in each of their roles. For Ledbetter, pursuing leadership in an academic setting, particularly at faith-based institutions, gave her the opportunity to explore where culture and values intersect.
In 2000 she was invited to contribute to an initiative spearheaded by Baker Books, a Christian publishing house that was proposing a series of books that examined multiple aspects of culture through a faith lens. Partnering with Robert Banks, a biblical theologian with expertise in practical theology, Ledbetter provided an academic and disciplinary perspective to the book Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches.
Over the course of a decade, as the concepts outlined in the book—such as ethical foundations of leadership and leaving a legacy— continued to evolve, readers became more and more interested in how faith shapes leadership and how the constructs of different faiths may influence the conversation. The second edition of the book, which emerged in response to increasing social and intellectual discourse on the cultural importance of leadership, was released this year.
“The assumptions of Christian leadership suggest there ought to be something different, better, or more than transactional understandings of leadership,” says Ledbetter. “Leadership must be informed by strong moral values, and many times those values come from a person’s faith perspective. As people of faith, we hold ourselves to an even higher standard of alignment of values with our leadership expressions. What we believe informs how we lead.”
As Reviewing Leadership notes, Christian leadership is inherently rooted in scripture, namely in Christ’s mission on Earth to not only be served but also to serve. Ledbetter and Banks also introduce the apostle Paul’s impact on the study of Christian leadership, especially in his ability to develop others into leaders who then continued the transformation trend. The authors note the key characteristics of Paul’s influence: “displaying boldness amid opposition; influencing motives rather than asserting authority; being affectionate and emotional, vulnerable and transparent, authentic and sincere; and exemplifying a follower-centered, not self-centered, approach.”
Ledbetter notes, “Paul understood that in order for the church to grow and spread, leadership had to be dispersed, which led to a greater sense of shared responsibility and community. Paul was Jesus’ spokesperson, but he held people accountable for taking the message and sharing it with the people in their communities.”
In modern business practice, those in managerial roles achieve greater success through serving those they manage. As employees feel encouraged, supported, and enabled to participate in the success of the organization, they tend to become more energized and produce higher quality work.
“It’s not about giving up your power or status,” explains Ledbetter. “It’s about motivating front-line workers to align with a set of values that are at the core of a business and take deep responsibility for making that mission a reality.”
This “service first” philosophy evolved into the idea of servant leadership, a concept first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay he penned in 1970 titled “The Servant As Leader.” According to Greenleaf, “Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” In the essay Greenleaf also asks, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”
The type of servant leadership imagined by Greenleaf can be seen in modern business-to-consumer relationships, in which those serving organizations take ownership for creating a shared vision within the business and assume responsibility for designing a culture of service with the customer.
Ledbetter references fast casual food chain Chipotle and how a company-wide crisis tasked front-line workers at each of their 2,000 locations across the U.S. to demonstrate the company’s strongly-held value of service—bringing fresh food to customers—on a daily basis.
“People want to know that their leader is capable and competent, but they also want a say in how and why things get done,” says Ledbetter. “When we as leaders serve those who report to us, they in turn serve the customer. If you want satisfied constituents, you have to have really satisfied and well-cared-for staff. You can’t have one without the other.”
In the classroom Ledbetter imparts the same concept of servant leadership to students in her management courses.
“I believe we’re in the business of serving—both the students and the community at large,” she explains. “We’re there to guide and shape and direct, and students want to see us as partners in their development. Involving students, inviting their input, being honest with feedback, and empowering them is a form of service. Servant leadership is not about surrendering power or status. It is about a shift in mindset as to the role and responsibilities associated with leading.”
Modern Work Life
The increasing interest in the topic of leadership, Ledbetter notes, is due in part to the growing need for people to step into such roles in response to our world asking for better models of influence. This need has engendered broader and deeper conversations about effective leadership that have resulted in a shift in the modern work environment.
Beyond longing for more distributed models of leadership, modern professionals are seeking meaning in their work and pursuing avenues to more seamlessly integrate work and personal life. Ledbetter notes that, historically, people have kept their personal lives separate from their work lives. This duality, especially for millennials in the workforce, can be exhausting. The concept of living an integrated life has its roots in scripture, particularly in the notion that faith informs life and vice versa.
This integration has become increasingly necessary particularly because people are spending more time at work than ever before and, as a result, are seeking a sense of purpose while maintaining and exceeding fiscal performance
“True Christian leadership means leading a team with a sense of purpose with respect to our responsibility to our fiscal goals and plans—purpose and meaning must be infused in everything,” says Ledbetter. “Time puts pressures on all of us. Performance puts pressures on all of us. By being part of a faith community that helps us grow and learn, my hope is that we help each other become better in our leadership.”
Reviewing Leadership also emphasizes that nurturing, enhancing, and supporting employees also contributes to feelings of belonging and inclusion, which lead to higher job satisfaction, better job performance, and a sense of community.
“Am I satisfied in my work? Is there a sense that we’re all members of the same team? This is the model that informs leadership, which informs the way we go about doing our work,” says Ledbetter.
Everywhere you look, consumers today are longing for values alignment and are closely observing organizations to determine that their core values and what they stand for align with their own. Thus, there is mounting pressure on companies to express their values authentically. While in the past companies could get by on rhetoric, today’s corporate ethical standards require transparency and demand authenticity.
“We have a great opportunity today in our world to lead with integrity, values, clarity, moral purpose, and a sense of alignment between what we believe and how we express that belief through our leadership,” says Ledbetter. “As people of faith, we are going to hold ourselves to an even higher standard of alignment between our values and our leadership expression.”
“Leadership requires a good deal of self-reflection and self-knowledge—who I am, what I stand for, what my strengths and challenges are. But it’s not possible to do it alone,” Ledbetter maintains. “We need people around us to help us understand how we’re perceived and how we can strengthen our leadership practices. It’s something we need to be constantly working at. We do have exemplary leaders in biblical text and in our workplaces who embody what we admire most in leadership. We are all working towards an ambitious goal of fine tuning leadership to its highest expression. The hope is that the book creates a dialogue about values-based, faith-informed leadership.”