My friends and family poke fun at me when I say that I'm a fan of Joel Osteen.
But spend 10 minutes watching him on TV and you'll see why I'm a fan. He's a fantastic communicator and an expert speaker. He's inspiring. His message of faith, hope, and optimism is one that's relevant to everyone, regardless of their denomination. And yes, darn it, he's rich and successful. Really rich and successful. Osteen has taken his skills and used them to create a giant empire of TV shows, videos, books, and appearances that have earned him tens of millions of dollars. Oh, and he's also a good-looking guy with a beautiful wife.
I admire him for all that. But many people don't. Some even hate him.
The hate rose to the surface this week as Houston tries to copes with historic flooding. Osteen was accused on social media of not opening the doors of his giant, 600,000-square-foot church -- Houston's largest -- to those in need. He vehemently denies these claims, saying through a spokesperson that the facility was "never closed" and that the church was hesitant to house people because of a fear of rising waters and an unsafe environment. Since earlier this week, hundreds of volunteers have been working at Osteen's church to organize aid and shelter has been provided to hundreds of others.
But the damage was done. Outrage targeted at Osteen was all over the internet and the story of his avoiding his "obligation to Christ" continues to dominate the news. Unfortunately, whether or not there's credence to these claims, Osteen deserves this criticism. Frankly, he asked for it.
Regardless of all the great things that Osteen does as a man of God -- his inspirational messages, his contributions to charities and to the local economy -- his lifestyle raises eyebrows. He lives in a $10 million house. He owns a yacht. He dresses in designer clothes and is chauffeured around in luxury cars. He is easily one of the highest-earning pastors in the country, if not the world. Osteen makes no apologies for his wealth. "We just feel that this is God's blessings," he told Oprah Winfrey in a 2012 interview. "I don't think there's anything wrong with having a nice place to live and being blessed."
That's where Osteen is mistaken.
I have a client who runs a 150-person company in New Jersey. Although he's not at a Joel Osteen level of success, he's doing very, very well. But his lifestyle is different from the Houston pastor's. He drives to work in an American car, not a BMW or Mercedes. His house is nice, but not a mansion. His kids go to public schools. His clothes are purchased at department stores. His lifestyle is one of upper-middle-class comfort, but not of ostentatious wealth. He does this because he understands a very important thing about leadership that has escaped Osteen: People care about this stuff, and they are watching.
People watch their leaders, and they have expectations. As a leader, your entire lifestyle is under scrutiny. Your employees understand that you're the boss and with that responsibility comes a few perks, like living in a nice house or being able to take your kids on vacation. But a $10 million house? A yacht? That's disturbing enough if you're the owner of a New Jersey company, but if you're the pastor of a church? There's a line between enjoying the fruits of your labor and living the high life off the backs of your workers and community. When you cross that line you will be resented like Osteen. My client understands this, which is why he doesn't flaunt his wealth.
Osteen choose to be a man of God and to speak Jesus' gospel, but he certainly doesn't live a life that Jesus would choose. By making these lifestyle choices, he willingly exposes himself to his critics and competitors. Regardless of whether you think there's nothing wrong with "having a nice place to live and being blessed," your employees, your customers and your community might. If you cross that line you lose your credibility and raise envy and even potential malice.
Unfortunately, if things turn south -- a bad financial patch, a lost customer, a lawsuit, a flood -- it's those very same people who will turn on you first.