Building Healthy Organizations in which People Can Flourish

A recent poll returned the surprising result that over 60 percent of people were seriously interested in changing their jobs and only 15 percent were fully committed to staying in their current position. This is due to the economy and the treatment of employees and degrading working conditions that the 60 percent observed (see below). The manner in which layoffs occurred in almost every sector and form of organization provided a visual language about corporate values. The way your colleague has been treated is more than likely how you will be treated as well. We all give much of our lives to organizations of various types and we all hope for more when we are in them.

This is not surprising since organizations play a significant role in the lives of most of the human population. Organizations are places we invest ourselves for a large part of our lives. We work, develop relationships, use our skills, capacities, even sacrifice our families and future. For this we, in turn, receive something: a salary, an identity, meaning, purpose, and hopefully a place to do meaningful, creative work. Involvements at work, church, nonprofits, government, school boards, clubs, and so on, shape not only our experience of life and society, but also impact our personal growth and development.

While not a recent phenomenon, organizations have changed much in the modern era, becoming more focused on strategy, mission, and efficiency. But in reality they are made up of people. It is people who do the work within them, people who run them, people who shape them. The human capital present and the responsibility of leadership/management for this resource are sobering. It is surprising that as much as people write about leadership, there are virtually no books and few articles specifically written about a theology of organizational life. We are consumed with the leader and his or her growth and capacity and seemingly less than interested in running healthy organizations. This disconnect is an odd one, especially since it is in organizational life that we see our values, beliefs, and practices expressed most vividly.

Job poll results. . .

The fourth annual survey of job satisfaction conducted by in 2009 revealed that 65% of employed survey respondents said they are looking for different jobs (up more than 17%); 60% said they plan to intensify a job search despite the economy; 65% were “somewhat satisfied,” but only 15% were extremely satisfied. Online public membership organization Conference Board reports in January of 2010 that job satisfaction in the U.S. is at its lowest level in two decades since the first year in which their survey was conducted.

Organizations today function in a diverse, pluralistic world, and this complex context demands a more thoughtful consideration about what it means to live out one’s faith within the world. As a result, how we understand work and the relationships between the church, believers, and society are also in flux. We are finally moving beyond the notion that calling is reserved for pastors, missionaries, or other such pursuits (as though a vocation and work were lesser things), to a more holistic notion that we can glorify God in the vocations of good work. This is an important shift, since it pushes us towards a more holistic understanding of life, work, faith, and practices. And it forces us to finally begin thinking about a theological view of organizational life and how to participate in, build, manage, and lead it. To do this, we need a more robust theology of humanity—what Max De Pree calls our “concept of persons.”

Thinking Theologically

The Judeo-Christian theological imagination provides several ways into thinking about creating organizations in which people can flourish. The biblical documents do help us a great deal, but perhaps not in the way many of us think. If organizations are fundamentally about people working together to accomplish a mission, then the context we are interested in involves issues that surround being human. Any manager or leader that takes on responsibilities within an organizational context may be swayed by the work of strategy, organizing, problem solving/decision making, delegation, self-management, reporting, or budgeting, but the work has to be done by and through people. Thus, the leader/manager must be a keen student of the human person and be able to create a relationship-based model that promotes optimal human functioning. The Old and New Testaments have much to say on the human person, and it is here that they contribute most.

When we think of understanding the human person, Genesis 1:26–29 is an important passage. It contains a rich theological landscape from which to draw. We learn in this text that humanity, men and women equally, have dignity and value, being created in God’s image. Similarly, we learn that humanity is given a profound role of responsibility within the created order, to manage it—which one assumes includes human society and the institutions found therein. Thus, part of our mandate is to create healthy systems in which humans can flourish. Paul’s understanding of the new creation is similar. His eschatology suggests that the church is to live out the values of the future in the present. If we are a new creation and old things have passed away and all things are new, there is a sense in which the future order has broken into the present. Surely this includes creating organizations that reflect those beliefs, values, and practices.

Genesis 3 chronicles humanity’s separation from God, climaxing in the expulsion from the Garden. Paul draws on this passage for his argument in Romans 1–3, which argues that all humanity is fallen, broken, and separated from God. This situation has sometimes been interpreted too negatively, however, as though little or no goodness or beauty remains in the created order. Quite the contrary. The human person retains the dignity of being made in God’s image and is capable of developing in amazing ways. The goodness that God proclaimed at the original creation can be caught in glimpses in a beautiful aria, work of art, nature, and in people fully alive and thriving. This fact alone ought to suggest a different way of being in the world, especially when one also considers the salvation, justice, mercy, and goodness of God. Irenaeus captures this in relationship to humanity in the oft-quoted thought that humanity fully alive honors God, because it is when people’s capacity is fully developed and is functioning that their creator is honored. Organizations, leaders, and managers all have a role to play in this regard.

A biblical understanding of the human person teaches that people have tremendous capacity for good and evil. It also suggests that people need to be developed, that we need accountability, and that we need challenge and adversity in order to grow. This changes our expectations of people and the way in which we manage and construct organizations. But how do we bring this understanding of humanity into public discourse in a pluralistic, diverse society?

The cultural shift we are currently experiencing in the West further complicates the public square and issues of faith and religion, values and beliefs. In early modernism, there was a clear boundary between what was viewed as private and public. Religion, for example, belonged to the private sphere. And as a result, people could be somewhat confused as they walked out their doors to work: Are their values of the family and their faith going to work with them? Or do they become some other person at work? In this new era, people are seeking to live more holistically and integrate their private and public worlds. As a result, their private belief systems and values are increasingly entering organizational life—which makes sense, since they take their whole selves to work. And some organizations are following suit, as they push to maximize human capacity/performance and create healthy, productive workplaces. Management studies are following this trend. Recent issues of the Harvard Business Review are implicitly exploring this topic.1

Organizations have become an important locus of this intersection, especially as they seek to create learning communities that are innovative, creative, efficient, productive, and profitable, but also enhance human capacity and well-being that engenders this productivity and creativity. The message is that one can and must do both. Further, organizations do not exist in a vacuum, rather they are connected to society in very intricate ways both dependent and contributing. This social contract is something that has been resisted, but the work of systems theorists has changed how we think about these matters. As a result, new models of management and organizations need to be rather more sophisticated in their understanding of what it means to be human and what humans need to live productive, healthy, meaningful lives. This should be placed front and center in any discussion of management, organizations, and leadership.


The following is an excerpt from a monograph by Max De Pree, published by the Max De Pree Center for Leadership:

Max-De-Pree-200x255For me, asking the question, “Does leadership have a future?” opens up a large window into the work of leaders, where questions have a special function. It’s a great misconception, you know, that leaders have the answers. I can tell you that isn’t true. Really good leaders, I think, have good questions. . . . when I look at what’s going on in business and in government and in the church and in education and elsewhere, I think we have problems of ineffective, unprepared, errant, and selfish leaders. If leadership is to have a future, are there questions we need to ask in order to find our way?

Questions are important, but they’re not always successful. Even so, leaders have a key role in initiating questions, in inviting questions, in examining questions, and in testing questions.

  • Who do we intend to be?
  • What is the source of our humanity?
  • In the company cafeteria, how good should the bagels be?
  • What will I die for?
  • Is the behavior of leaders public property?
  • What may a leader not delegate?

Even if they don’t have all the answers, really good leaders do have stories. Stories help us learn and remember who we are, where we have been, where we are going. Stories preserve our sense of community.

My definition of a leader is a person who has followers. Leaders are those from whom we learn. They influence the setting of a society’s agenda. They have visions. They acknowledge the authenticity of persons. They create. Leaders set standards. Leaders are those like Rosa Parks who endow us with surprising legacies. They meet the needs of followers, and their behavior and words positively reinforce the best in our society. Leaders trumpet the breaking up and the breaking down of civility. They offer hope and they say, “There is hope.” They are givers and they are takers. They ask the painful and necessary questions. They are those like Mother Theresa who create trust, and they are those who accept responsibility for their own behavior.

Max De Pree was CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., an office furniture company recognized for its people-centered management. The company was one of the most profitable Fortune 500 companies under his leadership, earning De Pree a place in Fortune magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame. His many books on leadership, including Leadership is an Art, Leadership Jazz, Leading without Power, and Called to Serve, demonstrate that his theology, more than anything else, has shaped who he is. De Pree served on the Fuller Seminary Board of Trustees for a remarkable forty years, with six as chair. Find out more about the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at

It is at this point that theology and religion have much to contribute. But it is a challenge. It may be that the theological construct of human flourishing provides an important bridge between the two worlds and offers a helpful start in building an ecological model that is sustainable.

Religion in the Public Square

We live in a diverse, pluralistic society in which there are many faiths, belief systems, values, and cultures. Organizations generally reflect this diversity, creating a complex environment in which to work and lead. How we think about the public expression of our belief system becomes very important. If piety is the focus, or the inward journey of the soul, evangelism, and other such pursuits, it creates tension in organizations since these expressions are in competition with other belief systems and behaviors. This is in general why public corporations are scared of religion. We really need a different way of viewing reality than this traditional construct allows. Of necessity it becomes a more practical discussion that revolves around how the mission of the organization can be furthered and the human capital be developed. The esoteric theological discourse, while necessary and interesting, has not helped much. Nor have the many books and talks on a general philosophy of leadership, calling, or other such matters. People need to know how exactly to live, work, and practice their faith in public.

How one understands work and faith, and the content of faith, is vital. In popular Christian literature, faith and work are often at odds. And even among those attempting to bridge the two, there is still talk about the separation of Sunday from Monday to Friday, losing Saturday in the cracks. The implication is that work is part of the curse, and something we can hopefully lose in our spiritual existence in eternity with God. Included in this struggle is tension with the material world. We have resorted to having to label the various domains a calling, much like a pastor’s call to the ministry. This re-sacrilizing of the public sphere seems at times an attempt to bring meaning into people’s daily mundane existence, who were not fortunate to be called into the ministry. It might be easier to argue that all work is sacred and part of God’s design in creation and that it does not need to be designated a calling, high or otherwise. Rather, it is part of our earthly sojourn that can be very meaningful when it taps into our capacities. The Flow research and the Good Work project provide the evidence that work can be meaningful when it is excellent, socially responsible, and engaging.2 To flourish as individuals, we need to tap into these resources and organizations if we seek to maximize human capital.

Many have now suggested that Western Christianity has become fundamentally gnostic or neo-platonist, in the sense that it focuses upon a dualism that emphasizes the spiritual at the expense of the physical, material world. If one listens to sermons and popular language, much of it emphasizes devotion, pietism, living apart from the world. Yet, we have bodies, we work in the physical world, we participate in culture and society for work, income, and other such things. Human flourishing as a construct seeks to bring these together in a more holistic fashion. The tension between the two is obvious, as more than one conservative evangelical author/preacher has opined that the new emphasis in human flourishing is nothing more than a renewal of the onslaught of “humanism” upon the gospel and church. This challenge reveals more than it realizes. It demonstrates their antipathy for and defensive struggle with broader culture, the spiritual vs. material separation, and a very negative view of humanity. Warren Brown’s essay in this volume gets at this issue of embodiment and physicality through the intriguing work being done in the neurosciences and cognitive linguistics.

If we accept human flourishing as a way of constructing reality, then we need to articulate a theology of being human and the basics for a meaningful life. There is not room to argue the case in this short essay, but we think that people, once they are more integrated, will understand their work, play, and faith as a single piece that is an important part of their personal development and growth, their relationships, and contributions. They are living out their lives to the glory of God in the midst of the world. And as a result, they are becoming more self-aware, and growing and developing through education, experiences, and encounters with others.

In public discourse it is important to find areas of common ground and contribute to practices that support the construction of society. While we might disagree on the nature or origins of humanity, we can agree that we all seek to contribute to building a good society in which people can reach and express their full capacity. A reading of Genesis 1:26–27 and Paul’s understanding of new creation both point in this direction. In order to do this, however, we need coherence between message and practice. The organizational culture and values that result in both corporate and individual behavior make powerful statements about core beliefs and values. How this works out in practical terms is developed in the section that follows.

Human Flourishing and Organizations

The work context is core to the capacity of people to flourish. Beyond the simple fact that we spend so many hours of each week at work, much of our identity as humans is tied up in the nature of the work we do. Three elements of work seem to be particularly related to flourishing: Work that enables people to perform to high standards, requires their full capacity and resources, and is socially responsible is linked to the construction of a meaningful life. Managers who are concerned about both the productivity and the well-being of their teams will recognize the win-win nature of emphasizing these three dimensions. How then is it possible to develop people so that they improve in these areas of excellence, ethics, and engagement?

Having argued that a theology of what it means to be human has a place in the public square, we now turn our attention to issues of practical implementation. In what remains of this essay, we will explore five specific areas in which our humanness needs to be incorporated into how we shape and run organizations. These include being known, communication, scaffolding, autonomy and accountability, and the problem of entropy. Attending to these dimensions of the workplace will enhance the capacity of organizations to be more intentional about developing their human capital and ultimately to prosper.

Human Flourishing: Theological Reflections on the High Calling of Business Leadership

Robert-Lane-175x225Robert W. Lane, chairman of the board of agricultural manufacturing corporation Deere and Company, spoke as part of the Max and Esther De Pree Presidential Leadership Lecture series. Reflecting on his own theology of leadership during his career with John Deere, Lane emphasized that his role as a business leader in a capitalist economic system required the ability to see Kingdom potential in the marketplace.

Lane shared the ways in which he was privileged to be like Timothy, having parents and grandparents who followed the Lord in faith and in study and understanding of the Scriptures. “These words become fresh every day, and it’s this freshness that I sought to bring into my workplace,” he said. Lane was strongly influenced in his own leadership development by his days as a student at Wheaton College and by two pastoral mentors, Anglican rector John Stott and Wheaton College philosophy professor Arthur Holmes.

The changes Lane has brought about as chairman of Deere and Company are focused around four themes: high aspirations, seeking to create not just “good products” but a “great business”; gritty ethics, teaching everyone in the company that John Deere will strive to do business in the most transparent way possible; uncommon teamwork, embracing diversity so that every employee in every plant worldwide is uncommonly aligned to a common mission; and integrated metrics, making global processes more unified, clear, and measurable.

While Lane demonstrated the importance of thinking innovatively and communicating clear values to bring about lasting positive change within a corporation, he added that what his company does is important for generations to come. When employees see their everyday work not just as assembling a tractor, but as building a lasting business that serves to feed coming generations, he said, their work affirms goodness in the world God has created. As Lane learned from his mentors, “God loves matter; he made it.” We must, therefore, seek an integrated worldview where all the families of the earth might be blessed. He compared the Christian mission in the world to “the kind of work that is not seen, but comes through in someone in the far reaches of Kazakhstan receiving a really good product with which to seed their land.” This concern for the common good has influenced Lane’s commitment to a model of leadership that has human flourishing as its core purpose.

Robert Lane, who joined John Deere in 1982, has served as chairman of the board since 2000 and was also chief executive officer for nine years. For more on Lane, or the lecture series, see

Thanks to MDiv student Dawn Miller for this report.

Being Known: Intimacy

Too often all we see of the people who are part of an organization are the ways they fit the job they were hired to do. We hire or incorporate people into organizations based upon need and function. They may have an MD, but if they are hired to photocopy, that’s all they are expected to do. When people in organizations are typecast like actors and limited in their opportunity to contribute to much-needed creativity and innovation, the result is amazing underutilization of human capital. Theologically, the challenge in the Garden to steward creation includes organizational life. Leadership/management has a responsibility before God for not just the organization, but also the various people in their care. For people to flourish in an organization, we need to create structured ways through which to know and understand the potential of each member of the team. It’s essential as well to provide structures, systems, and processes for them to be developed and promoted. Giving even a very gifted employee too much responsibility without support and training is risky at best.

Leadership and management need an additional set of sensibilities and skills to care for those in their organizations. The rapidly changing technological, global, and diverse marketplace requires a toolset of leadership skills that include direct, instrumental, and relational skills.3 Younger workers of the Gen-X and Millennial generations expect and thrive in lateral rather than vertical structures. Drucker saw this when he argued that workers must be led and not managed. In order to maximize what they bring to an organization, leaders need to know their people much better than before. Failure to know their human capital, that is, the capacity, character, and competence of people, is as risky as failing to understand their financial capital. It places the organization’s mission in jeopardy. Understanding the human side of the organization requires high emotional and social intelligence in addition to the specialized competencies related to the mission of the organization.4


In order to protect and develop the human capital of an organization there must be explicit processes, policies, and strategies for performance review, supervision, training, and delegation of new responsibilities. These policies must be accurately understood throughout the organization. The success of each of these processes depends on effective communication. Professional and personal boundaries are protected by clarity, transparency, and practices that are coherent with the verbal and written statements. Job descriptions, compensation, promotion policies, and expectations for performance ought to be communicated in a direct and clear manner. There should be no surprises when it comes time to fire, promote, or reward any member of an organization.

The nonverbal side of communication is equally important in shaping the people and culture. Whether conscious or unconscious, coherence between the practices and stated values of an organization speaks volumes. When verbal communication is at odds with real practices, policies, and values, organizations can be places in which mistrust and dishonesty come to rule. Passive aggressive communication practices such as gossip and triangulation are signs of toxicity. At times, these indirect forms of communication can stem from values that otherwise seem to be positive. For example, in an attempt to be nice or out of a fear of hurting feelings, people may fail to directly communicate about problem behavior.

To this point, we have been discussing primarily the contractual aspects of organizations. However, there is also a covenantal aspect to communication that stems from a theological understanding of human dignity. All persons being created in God’s image are equal before God and are owed justice and respect. They ought to also be accorded the opportunity to speak with honesty and integrity without fear of retribution.

There is a link between good communication, the affirmation of a person’s dignity, the development of people, creating a healthy organizational culture, and the values of the people of God. Christians are not the only ones who share these values, but they are central to the Christian belief system. Part of the broader goal for the people of God ought to be the construction of a good society. A just, peaceable society is good for everyone and consistent with the gospel.

Scaffolding: How to Develop People

Rarely do managers receive formal training in mentoring processes, which include supervision, performance review, and delegating responsibility to others. All of these routine managerial activities are opportunities to increase the human resources of organizations by developing the gifts and capacities of team members.

As background, it is perhaps helpful to think about the components that go into a good mentoring relationship in which a more experienced person takes on the role of helping another develop in a specific domain. Of primary importance are the advanced competencies of the mentor. They have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are not yet fully matured in the other. They must also have sufficient awareness of the proficiency level of the person whom they are encouraging. Finally, they must be able to form a bridge between their own level of performance and that of the junior team member. The concept of scaffolding is a useful metaphor for describing the temporary support that more experienced players provide as others gain the skills needed to take on additional role assignments. Note that scaffolding is meant to be a temporary support structure that is gradually dismantled as the skill is constructed. Through the provision of sufficient support during the construction phase, the less-experienced team member is more likely to experience success and less likely to make a serious mistake.

For those invested in developing themselves, being mentored is a unique relational experience that adds dimensionality to our human experience. There are attitudes and behaviors that can enhance the mentoring relationship. These include letting ourselves be known; openness to feedback; actively pursuing what we need; and expressing our gratitude to those who give us the gift of their mentoring attention.5

Autonomy and Accountability

There is a delicate balance in organizations between giving people space to exercise their autonomy and providing appropriate oversight and accountability. When the sweet spot is found, good work is the result; both in its excellence and in its ethics. Organizational cultures vary in their ability to tolerate mistakes. Highly creative and innovative cultures by necessity need to be able to follow rabbit trails that will often lead nowhere. On the other hand, assembly line production depends upon precision and exact replication of each step in the process. Accountability serves to protect both individuals and the organization from mistakes but also, stated more positively, allows them to continue to develop and improve.


If we accept that people have limitations and a capacity for sin (broadly defined), then the natural pattern of human performance is not towards excellence but mediocrity. Challenge, adversity, and even suffering are essential for healthy growth, though we don’t normally seek them out. Entropy is difficult to keep at bay.

To maintain a flourishing organization, leadership needs to be fully aware of the human factor. Rather than looking for entrepreneurial keys, leadership models, and other such things in Scripture, a reading that informs our theological imagination and allows us to participate in a constructive manner to the construction of healthy organizations, their systems, processes and practices, and ultimately to a good society is what we need. Granted this is a more challenging model, but ultimately it is more satisfying. Stewardship involves more than money and ideas, it also involves the immense human capital that is part of every organization.

1. Harvard Business Review,
2. M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harpers, 1990); H. Gardener, M. Csikszentmihalyi, and W. Damon, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
3. J. Lipman-Blumen, Connective Leadership: Managing in a Changing World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
4. D. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (New York: Bantam, 2002).
5. J. Nakamura and M. Csikszentmihalyi, “The Construction of Meaning through Vital Engagement,” in Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, by C. M. Keyes and J. Haidt (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003), 83–104.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2010, “Human Flourishing: Reflecting the Abundance of Creation.”