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Review of Kurt Senske's Executive Values


A review of Executive Values: A Christian Approach to Organizational Leadership

[1] The claim of this book is quite clear: "We will be successful, whatever we do and wherever we go, if we faithfully follow the Golden Rule of Leadership, and live our life for an audience of one - Jesus Christ" (p. 158). This claim is stated in a variety of ways throughout the book. Personal satisfaction and financial success are both possible if a corporation and its leadership follow the Golden Rule. "With the golden rule at its heart, it is quite simple and has allowed me to inculcate Christian values within my organization in order to achieve our shared vision and goals" (p. 26). According to author Kurt Senske, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the South, the Golden Rule of Leadership is what God wants and it works. Although it is not assumed that doing the right thing will be easy, there is an underlying optimism that Christians will "naturally desire" to "do well by doing good." The Golden Rule of Leadership, according to Senske, is not only the appropriate Christian response; it makes good business sense.

[2] An effective Christ-based organizational culture and Golden Rule Leadership as Senske will be visible in a number of ways. It will hire individuals who share its values in order to enhance the organization's culture for a long time. A Christ-based leader will foster transparency in the organization and treat all individuals with respect and dignity. Although Senske believes that the organization all comes first in decision-making, actions will be guided by nonnegotiable Christian values of mercy and compassion for all persons. The meaning of "Golden Rule Leadership" is more assumed than defined except for a reference to the theme from the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing. Doing the right thing means acting with integrity. And acting with integrity means that one has determined what is right and what is wrong in a given situation.

[3] Kurt Senske writes with passion and from the heart and out of his own experience. This is a readable book full of lively illustrations from companies and leaders who have done well by doing good or who have done good and succeeded. So, for example, a Christ-based leader will seek to stretch employees to greater achievement while at the same time helping employees achieve balance in their lives. "When the Golden Rule of Leadership is entwined with a passionate and purposeful career, the result is a marriage that reaps spiritual and earthly blessings" (p. 152). There are also wise aphorisms sprinkled generously through the book such as "strategy flows from values" or "work hard, have fun, get results" or "the only true fulfillment comes from building a better world" or "leadership, like life, is not a destination but a journey." It is clear that the author has an internalized value system informed by his understanding of the Christian faith.

[4] One can only applaud an effort such as Executive Values that seeks to connect faith and life in a comprehensive manner. It is a solid text about what is required to exercise responsible leadership that clearly counters the newly invoked "Bush model" of authoritarian leadership. My difficulty with the book centers on the author's rendition of the faith as a "deep relationship and constant dialogue with our Lord and Savior" that is at the same time a comprehensive framework of Christian principles or values. "The Scriptures lay down sound principles for our personal and professional lives, but give us the freedom to make individual choices about how we apply those principles in order to improve ourselves and benefit our organization" (p. 149). Senske is more sophisticated about his references to material written from the business or leadership perspective than he is about Christian theology. The Golden Rule is regarded as the pragmatic norm of faithful living without any discussion of its meaning in the biblical text and without any reference to what ethicists like Paul Ricoeur have written about it. The Golden Rule does have a kind universal appeal across many religious traditions that makes it a workable principle to invoke in the public sphere. However, because Senske intends to develop a Christ-based approach to leadership and corporate life, he needs to make the case for using the golden rule as the foundational principle for a distinctively Christian or Christ-based leadership.

[5] There are three things that trouble me about Senske's argument. 1) While he does acknowledge in one paragraph (p. 152) that being a business leader and a Christian does not guarantee success, the dominant message of the book is that doing the right thing is good for business. Religion works. Because most of his business and leadership principles are sound, it is difficult to know for sure whether good business practice and sound leadership skills are what matters and Christian faithfulness is a pious afterthought. 2) It may be that as CEO of the Lutheran Social Services of the South, Senske can expect that all employees embody a Christ-based servant leader model. In a pluralistic culture, however, the Golden Rule will work more easily than explicit Christian values as a corporate norm. It is intriguing to imagine a style of leadership developed out of a carefully nuanced ethical understanding of the Golden Rule. 3) It is commonly understood, at least in Lutheran thought, that the word "Christian" is used sparingly as an adjective. One would hope that that are more people like Kurt Senske would seek to understand what it means to be a Christian in leadership without making the claim of being a Christian leader.

© June 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 6