By Eddie Pipkin

June 30, 2017

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO and central personality, was recently forced to step down, shining a harsh spotlight on his abrasive leadership style.  With the ride share company floundering, one of the primary struggles identified by analysts has been the toxic corporate culture that was widely identified as a direct result of Kalanick’s leadership style.  Kalanick’s fall is a cautionary tale worthy of our attention: ministry culture is often a mirror image of one leader’s outsized influence.  But the flip side of that divisive drama is the kind of leadership that empowers healthy relationships and positive collaboration.

One Uber board member recognized the pervasive influence of a combative and confrontational messaging at Uber when she suggested that they make a subtle but powerful change in the name of the main conference room in which leadership met.  Instead of the “War Room,” she offered, what if they called it the “Peace Room”?  It’s a small detail, but such publicly visible details communicate a sense of the institutional culture.  What are our values?  What’s important to us?  In a recent article which surveyed major American companies, the authors reported on the names of corporate conference rooms and how they reflected the individual personalities of those companies.  For instance, Elon Musk’s visionary SpaceX names its meeting spaces after famous astronaut heroes (as in let’s meet in the Neil Armstrong room today).  The company’s commitment to heroic thinking and audacious goals is thus built directly into signage on its doors and in its hallways.

As ministry leaders, it’s worth thinking through those kinds of details and what they reflect about our values and goals.  The words and images we use to communicate, the names by which we refer to our ministries, and even the clues to priorities indicated by our organizational charts are all examples of a subtle infrastructure of values that we are building for our work with fellow leaders, volunteers, and ministry participants.

Toxic culture does long-lasting and pervasive damage.  Kalanick’s corrosive language and callous treatment of the very people who should have been his partners gave tacit permission for leaders down the line to treat employees in the same manner.  Contrast the bad habits he enabled throughout his organization with the example set by his highly regarded Chinese counterpart:

Jean Liu is president of Didi Chuxing, the ride-sharing behemoth that dominates China’s market. Her dealmaking acumen and collaborative approach to competition is also the antithesis of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of business.  Liu has made her mark by negotiating complex deals that align seemingly intractably opposed forces.

Kalanick reportedly “belittled and ridiculed” people in meetings.  Liu is described (by one of her competitors) as fostering “a sense of brotherhood” that is “inspirational.”  Kalanick has a reputation for making enemies, often by the very people it might be most useful to partner with to accomplish goals.  Liu is known for bridging divides and promoting conversations.

This is not just a tale of corporations and high-stakes business deals.  There is no one reading this column who has not experienced leaders within ministry who live out the “take no prisoners” method of leadership.  It is certainly not the model demonstrated by Jesus as he led that hearty little band of disciples.  Yet, we sometimes default to it with the justification that we need to “break some eggs to make an omelet.”  We sometimes are willing to sacrifice our values and principles as biblical leaders on the altar of getting things done.  We can be guilty of leading with righteous disdain.

But that doesn’t work in the conference rooms of the world’s most innovative companies.  And that certainly doesn’t work in the rooms in which we set the course for ministry.

Have you had some Kalanicks in your ministry experience?  Have you been the Kalanick?  Conversely, when have you had the opportunity to be a Liu?  What subtle details communicate your ministry values?  What are some stories about how you have helped effect change in a culture towards the good?  Share your stories with us and check out our resources at the EMC3 web site to learn more about leadership strategies and empowering your congregation to lead with grace.