Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Exemplary Failure?

Today's New York Times web opinion page ran an interesting piece by D. Michael Lindsay, the current president of Gordon College who was an academic sociologist at Rice University until this year. Lindsay also wrote Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, a book based on several hundred interviews with evangelical Christians who have "made it" by getting into top positions at mainstream institutions in American society.

But there is another side to the story of "making it." And it's one that I've been thinking about for several years. When Christians enter the Big Time of corporate leadership, will they be corrupted by power? If necessary, will they be willing to sacrifice their positions in order to stay true to their faith?

Lindsay tells us that Gerard Arpey, the CEO of American Airlines, did the latter. As Lindsay puts it, Arpey
resigned and stepped away with no severance package and nearly worthless stock holdings. He split with his employer of 30 years out of a belief that bankruptcy was morally wrong, and that he could not, in good conscience, lead an organization that followed this familiar path.
I'm grateful to hear about this. If Lindsay's account is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt it, since he's interviewed Arpey), then this is a great example of the kind of leadership that Christians could exert in corporate America: real leadership that embraces noble failure rather than compromised success.

Or to be more accurate, the kind of leadership that takes seriously the call and example of Jesus to be a sacrificial servant of others rather than exalt oneself. As Jesus said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). In case the readers of Mark missed the point, this is repeated:
whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)
A little context helps appreciate how radical Arpey's move is. First, as I've blogged about before, executive pay has gone crazy in this country, and Arpey is bucking a major trend. Second, all airlines have struggled to be profitable and contemplated bankruptcy in order to shed union contracts with pilots, flight attendants, and maintenance workers. And some of their CEOs had no such scruples. By leading their companies through bankruptcy, they slashed their workers' pay and trimmed their retirement pensions, taking money away from ordinary workers. But Northwest Airlines' CEO came out of bankruptcy in 2007 with a compensation package worth $26.6 million. After United Airlines CEO Glenn Tilton put his company and his workers through bankruptcy, he walked away with a cool $39.7 million.

So Gerard Arpey does deserve our praise! Well-done, good and faithful servant.

Epilogue to this story
Of course, the day that Arpey resigned, American Airlines declared bankruptcy, which means that the end of the American Airlines story isn't good news. But the good news of the Christian story is that those servants who sacrifice and end up last will someday, in the Kingdom's economy, be first.

If we were in Arpey's shoes, I hope we'd choose the right thing--to be more motivated by truly loving God and our neighbor in the long run (and in the long run, as Keynes said, we are all dead, so we'll have to face our Maker) than by enriching ourselves. I hope we'd decide to work toward that day when we might hear those words: "Well-done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your Master's happiness" (Matt 25:23).

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