Peter A. Kerr: Leaders as lawgivers

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Christian leaders should create good laws because they love their people, writes a professor of leadership and communications at Southeastern University.

Throughout history, Christians have been tempted to overemphasize “the law.” In Jesus’ day, it meant Jews were forbidden from moving chairs on the Sabbath; in our times, it can mean prohibitions on trivial matters ranging from drinking coffee to women wearing pants.

Yet good laws and rules are not only helpful but necessary, not just for nations and societies, but for the workplace as well. Leaders of churches and church-related institutions often struggle to figure out how to create and implement rules that are just, fair and helpful. Church leaders struggle to be both brother/sister in Christ and boss to their employees.

Though we may not like it, “lawgiver” is part of the role of leadership. What does it mean to take that role seriously? What would the perfect law of love look like in Christian organizations?

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15 NIrV). That kind of response is difficult to elicit from employees. Even so, as leaders, we should try to emulate God’s character and take an approach that naturally integrates enforcing laws and loving our people.

When it comes to rules, fewer is better. Having fewer laws allows employees to be more creative, less fearful, and feel trusted and appreciated. Today’s workplace is a long way from Eden, but it’s instructive to remember that Adam and Eve had free run of the full garden with just a single prohibition.

After the fall, the number of laws proliferated in order to restrain humanity’s increasing penchant for wrongdoing. However, when rightly formulated and applied, laws are not meant merely to restrain us; they are meant instead to retrain us, so that we may continue in relationships. The law is not a straitjacket that prevents us from doing wrong; it is a guide that shapes and forms us for doing right.

In Scripture, the law is likened to a mirror that shows us our sin. It reminds us of the ways we fall short so that we can repent and regain a right relationship with God and others.

All good laws protect a value that accords with God’s character and will. Speed limits bring order and keep drivers safe. Laws against stealing honor others’ well-being. Prohibitions against lying preserve relationships and trust. Good laws reflect God’s order, holiness and love of relationships.

But what does this mean in the workplace? Rules and regulations should be aimed at training us to internalize values that reflect the character of our organizations, and ultimately of our Lord.

Violation of these laws should not be seen as an occasion to punish but rather as an opportunity to retrain employees and more firmly inculcate the organization’s value systems.

Consider these tips for how leaders can be good lawmakers for their employees and organizations.

  • Scrutinize your organization’s existing rules. Do they help define and enforce the organization’s values? Do they limit productivity and creativity? If so, are you sure the rules are really necessary? What rules can be changed or dropped altogether so people feel more empowered, trusted and appreciated?
  • Establish good rules. Figure out and prioritize your organization’s values so that you know the culture that the rules are helping you create.
  • Set clear expectations. Consider asking employees to join with you in a covenant through which everyone can affirm that they understand the values they are trying to achieve and the ways in which the rules help bring that about. Nebulous rules cause problems, tempting employees to skirt them, complicating enforcement and opening the door for the appearance of favoritism.
  • Be clear about the penalties. Good rules with clear penalties help clarify how serious you are about your organization’s values. They should also afford you room to grant mercy when a violation occurs. (In my experience, you can always reduce a punishment based on context, but it is very difficult to increase a punishment for a particularly heinous infraction.)
  • Be serious about enforcement. Never have a workplace rule you are unwilling to enforce, and be sure the enforcement is as consistent as possible. Don’t assess penalties based on the harm or workload they create. Keep in mind not only justice (which serves to deter) but also mercy (which serves to restore relationship).
  • If rules are repeatedly broken, ask yourself why. Are the policies themselves lacking? Are they unclear or poorly written? For example, if you have a dress code that employees keep violating, ask why. Talk with them about the purpose of the dress code (the value of professionalism, meeting clients’ expectations); better yet, put your money where your value is and offer a $50 bonus for a professional article of clothing.
  • Perhaps most important, don’t just create rules. Model them, relating them explicitly to the organization’s values and the reasons why you have the rules. That helps everyone internalize those values, strengthening your organization’s harmony, team spirit and productivity.

Sure, the ultimate workplace would be an Eden, a place with few rules, where everyone lives out the group’s values. The perfect law is simply to love, behaving toward others in the character of God.

While you cannot re-create Eden, your task as a leader is to create an organizational culture based on internalized values, where the rules are written not just on paper but in everyone’s hearts.

Strive for that kind of leadership. Use the law properly, and you will discover that perfect love drives out fear, even in the workplace, leaving blessings in its wake.