May 7, 2014| 0

The Source of Courageous Leadership (John 5:16-17)

16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

In management we are always under pressure to satisfy someone else’s desires. This is especially true for executives in public companies who manage expectations and feel the pressure to “hit our numbers.” Financial performance often dominates discussions with analysts to the exclusion of other topics.

Courageous leaders, however, are more far-sighted and see beyond the one-dimensional measure of market capitalization. They have other values in mind, and work toward higher aims. And this can mean bucking the dictates of conventional wisdom.

Jesus certainly did this—and made a lot of people angry—when he healed the lame man by the pool at Bethesda on the Sabbath [John 5:2ff]. According to the religious and economically powerful experts of the day, he should have left the lame man there and walked on by. After all, he had been an invalid for thirty-eight years already [v. 5]. Why stir up trouble, especially on the Sabbath?

Conventional wisdom tells us, “Don’t go looking for trouble.” If Jesus had valued the world's wisdom, he would not have told the invalid to get up and carry away his bed [v. 11]. But Jesus didn't care much for conventional wisdom. He was intent on doing the job he was sent to do. He models courageous leadership for us when he says, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

Jesus knows what he was sent to do, and he answers to the Father, not to peer pressure. His identity and his work are completely defined by his relationship with the Father. Jesus said, "...the son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does." [John 5:19, emphasis added] Courage (and direction) are rooted in our relational identity and in staying true to our highest calling in the face other pressures.

Paul O’Neill, CEO of Alcoa, showed courage in 1987 when he began his first speech as CEO, “I want to talk to you about worker safety.”[1] His audience was taken aback and the room grew tense. They expected him to talk about profits and sales forecasts. When someone asked a question about inventories, O’Neill said, “I’m not certain you heard me. If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures.”

O’Neill stayed true to this higher calling for thirteen years. His devotion to workers’ safety turned out to be well-aligned with the interests of stockholders. By the time he retired in 2000, Alcoa's income had quintupled, and market cap increased by $27 billion.[2] Alcoa became one of the safest workplaces in the world, with injury rates asymptotically approaching the goal of zero.

We should not be surprised to find stakeholders’ interests falling in line with our higher aims. The source of courage is simply remembering whose we are, in Christ, and keeping a steady hand on our priorities, doing the work of the Father always, and disregarding the voice of conventional wisdom—as Jesus does—whenever necessary.

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[1] The quotations and details in this paragraph are from Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, p. 98ff.

[2] Duhigg (2012), p. 100.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

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