Reverend T.D. Jakes, an entrepreneur and lead pastor of a 30,000 member megachurch, on leadership, firing people, and the role of forgiveness at work
T.D. Jakes is the lead pastor of Potter’s House, a 30,000 member congregation in Dallas, Texas. In addition to his pastoral duties, Jakes is an entrepreneur, best-selling author, and movie producer, most notably of Jumping the Broom, which grossed $37 million. His most recent book is Let it Go: Forgive So You Can Be Forgiven. Jakes spoke to Inc Editor-at-Large Kimberly Weisul about leadership, entrepreneurship, and his biggest pet peeve.
Most of our readers become leaders when they start a company. How did it happen for you? When did you know you were going to become a spiritual leader?
I started preaching when I was 19 years old. That’s when I knew.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
Being an entrepreneur is very much a part of my DNA. My father started a janitorial service with a mop and a bucket and ended up with 52 employees. My grandmother owned her own business and worked her way through school. She got her degree when she was 50, and then she was teaching.
I’ve always worked a job. In the early days, when I worked as an itinerant preacher, I still worked a job at Union Carbide.
Charismatic leaders often unwittingly create an environment that makes it difficult for others to take responsibility. How do you prevent that?
It’s true that people do have a tendency to direct things to me. They know that if they say “Bishop said,” or “Bishop wants this done,” it’s kind of like “Open sesame.” So when people bypass a leader I put in place, I send them back to that leader.
I expect a lot from the people I put in leadership positions. I’m going to ask them a lot of questions. I want them to produce answers. I don’t do the work for them. To get quality people you have to offer quality salaries, and that’s too much to invest in someone who comes to you for answers.
One of the advantages of being charismatic is that you don’t always have to be acrimonious to confront conflict. People who are hostile and who use hostility to confront conflict generally do it because they’re weak, not because they’re strong.
There’s this saying that ‘what gets measured is what gets done.’ In the spiritual realm, how do you know if your leadership is having the desired effect?
One measurement is the quantitative growth of the church given the demographics of the community that the church serves. There is growth in terms of social relevance as the church takes on the tough issues of that community.
Then there’s the spiritual development of the church. You can’t totally get a feed on that, because you can’t see into a person’s heart. But you can see the healthy development of families. You can see people who have had substance abuse problems and economic challenges lifting themselves up and going back to school.
You can track how many are disciples to the extent that they become part of the volunteer staff. So there is an indication of spiritual development. And some of it is totally ambiguous. You cannot see if that heart is truly converted.
How do you keep your employees motivated? Especially people that may have a more secular work history?
This is going to sound really corny, but it’s really true. I love people or I wouldn’t be doing this. I think it is very difficult to motivate people you don’t care about, or else motivation comes across like manipulation. I don’t like a lot of turnover. If I’m having a lot of turnover that means one of us isn’t getting it right.
The pastor in me wants to save everything and everyone and every relationship. I’m all about mercy and restoration. The CEO in me says you can’t afford to keep people around indefinitely. That doesn’t mean you’re not a great person, but it may mean you are a great person in the wrong place. Correcting that mistake is going to be for the betterment of both of us.
How is leading Potter’s House different than leading another congregation?
There’s a great deal of expectation among African Americans of what they expect from their pastors. Until President Obama, African-Americans have never had a president who looked like them. All they ever had were preachers. So all our leaders came out of the pulpit.
So there is an expectation to respond to community issues in a way that our white counterparts are not expected to. In the Trayvon Martin case, I will be expected to say something about that. Say somebody’s son is going to trial--it wouldn’t be uncommon to ask me to write a letter. Someone may be working on a real estate deal, and they won’t sign it until the pastor looks at it.
How does your writing about forgiveness apply to leadership and entrepreneurship?
Let It Go spends a couple of chapters dealing with hostile atmospheres in the workplace and how important it is to release those hostilities. Every employee needs to be able to feel secure enough be able to communicate with the person they report to. Every leader needs to create an atmosphere where we can have an honest dialog about who dropped the ball and why.
What I hate more than anything else in the world is somebody who won’t take responsibility when they’re wrong. It absolutely drives me bananas. I would rather have you say to me I blew it, I made a mistake, than to hand me a Kool-Aid and say it’s water.
In some of your earlier press clips, you were sometimes referred to derogatorily as a ‘prosperity pastor.’ More recently, you’ve been seen as a mainstream spiritual advisor to very high profile people. What changed?
I never changed my message. When you are new, it is easier for your audience to say, “Oh, he is like so-and-so.” Over time you get liberated from those categories because you develop your own identity. As I worked with the past three presidents, as I showed up in Katrina with former president Bush, as I began dig wells in Kenya and all over the world, people saw that and noticed that.
You have to know who you are. Don’t worry about how people define you.
Did you change your delivery to make it easier for people to understand your message?
I absolutely didn’t change my delivery.
I do think I have developed in 35 years. I’m more mature and more focused. I can express myself more succinctly than the first time I did my interview. It helps me to be better understood. It takes a while for people to stop making comparisons and let you be yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Kimberly Weisul.