The Harsh Reality of Being a Christian Business Leader

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

I usually don’t pay much attention to those dime-a-dozen reality shows sweeping the prime time cable line up. Whether it’s that creepy pawn shop guy, or the crazy ice truckers, or those squeaky-voiced Kardashian triplets, I find them trite and boring.

But my huffy attitude changed forever one recent Sunday evening as I sat down in front of the TV with a blunt determination to bore myself with some mindless trash. Clicking through the channels, I landed on an image of a full-grown man crying like a little girl. He was talking about the hardships of an hourly employee who apparently worked for his company.

I had to see what the problem was here.

It turns out that this man was actually a CEO who stepped down from his corporate tower to spend time in the trenches working those same measly jobs as his employees.

The narrative slowly lured me in. That woman there, with the 5th grade education? Just look at how she handles those customers, with such skill, such compassion and love! You could never handle that, Mr. big-shot CEO. And what’s that? Her house is getting repossessed? Dear Lord, we must do something for her!

Before long, there were little tears forming in my eyes, too.

Now I am entirely hooked on this reality show called, “Undercover Boss.”

A recent episode featured Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways Holdings, which owns Frontier Airlines. He also happens to be a devout Roman Catholic who is not shy about communicating his faith in the organization. During the episode, Bedford is shown reading his bible before bed and speaking openly about God. In fact, the first line of the company’s Vision statement says, "We believe that every employee, regardless of personal beliefs or world view, has been created in the image and likeness of God,"

For the Undercover Boss episode, Bedford disguises himself and anonymously goes off to work cleaning planes and emptying human waste from holding tanks. Along the way, as typical of the show, he gains the trust of his unknowing fellow workers. They confide in him testimonies of their various personal and financial struggles. He listens intently as one woman complains bitterly about a 10% pay cut across the company.

By the end of the hour, Bedford develops a newfound appreciation for the big hearts of these formerly nameless employees. He vows to do what he can to improve things, followed by emotional embraces that would otherwise be considered totally inappropriate in a workplace setting.

But what the TV show failed to reveal was that during this shoot, Frontier was in the midst of a very difficult merger with Midwest Airlines. As is typical following a merger of two companies, many cost-savings changes were made to streamline and integrate the two organizations. This included laying off about 425 Midwest flight attendants, according to the Association of Flight Attendants.

Veda Shook, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, says she finds it difficult to reconcile Bedford’s Christian faith with his cost-cutting moves, especially the layoffs."It all seems very disingenuous,” she tells USA Today, “especially when they can't pay their mortgages."

Well. I guess it’s okay for a business leader to express his Christian faith - until it gets personal. Then everyone’s standards for holiness suddenly ramp up: he should be nicer. He shouldn’t mess with anyone’s pay. He shouldn’t care about the stupid shareholders, and just keep everyone employed for life regardless of the business implications.

Being an openly Christian leader is not for the faint of heart.

The job of a CEO, Christian or not, is to steward the complex elements of an organization to bring about the highest and best return. You can't do that without making tough decisions sometimes. The harsh reality is that if Mr. Bedford wasn't doing his job effectively, then perhaps no one would be employed.

The 3rd quarter in 2010 was Frontier’s most profitable quarter ever, causing several analysts to upgrade the company's outlook.

Post by J.B. Wood

Image by Phil Mollenkof , used with permission via flickr.