Leadership Integrity: An Interview with Compassion International President Wess Stafford, by Amy Larson

“If you lack integrity you lack everything. If you cannot be trusted you have nothing to offer.”                            – Wess Stafford

Under Wess Stafford’s leadership, Compassion has grown to helping over 1.2 million children in 26 countries and earned a top 1% rating from Charity Navigator.

Wess Stafford is president and CEO of Compassion Internationala child advocacy ministry committed to releasing children from spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty. Founded by the Rev. Everett Swanson in 1952, Compassion began providing Korean War orphans with food, shelter, education and health care, as well as Christian training. Today, Compassion helps more than 1.2 million children in 26 countries. (For more on Compassion, view Wess Stafford’s video: The Lie of Poverty.)

Compassion’s unique strategy of locally-directed child sponsorships enables them to target over 80% of all donations directly to on the ground humanitarian relief. Compassion believes that the best people to spread the gospel or carry out programs in the field are the natives of that country. The vast majority of Compassion’s 3000 employees are nationals not Americans.  Their efforts have earned Compassion four-star rating from Charity Navigator: putting them in the top 1% of all international relief agencies.

That kind of integrity demands constant vigilance and extraordinary leadership, and Wess Stafford is deeply committed to providing it.  Amy Larson recently interviewed Wess as part of an assignment for one of my at Bethel University.  Compassion granted us permission to post it here.

Interview with Compassion International President Wess Stafford

by Amy Larson

Amy Larson:  What have you learned about leadership in ministry?
Wess Stafford: I think you can learn an awful lot about leadership from executive models and the secular world….. all truth is God’s truth.
First of all, I think leadership that is not servant leadership…. is not really leadership at all.   Leadership is not an end to itself.   You can’t aspire to lead…. you have to ask yourself deep in your heart “what do I really care about and what moves me deeply to tears”…If you don’t you are not fully alive and shouldn’t be leading anything.  Now it could be tears of victory or sorrow in that area, but leadership without passion and people aspiring to lead is too vague.  If you lead something that doesn’t move you to tears in 30 seconds, then you probably shouldn’t be leading and leave it to someone else.
Many people, who aspire to leadership, aspire to it due to the trappings and salary and notoriety.  But that is not a lasting satisfaction.  The buck stops here, the pressure, recognition and accolades become pretty shallow.
There are two kinds of power; prescribe power and ascribed power. “Prescribed power”, the power of “because I said so” comes with the office.  It’s not very good power and easily abused….it’s even lazy power.  There’s a more powerful authority that is “ascribed power” that is given to the leader by the people who choose to follow.  This is the gift of leadership by those who agree to follow.  That is ascribed power vs. prescribed power.
Wess toured Haiti shortly after the devastating 2010 earthquake assessing damage to Compassion and international church partner facilities.
You have to use both powers, but you can’t use the prescribed power often….maybe 5% of the time.  I use “prescribed power” once in a great while just to remind people I’m still here and to remember that I’m still in charge.  But  ascribed power should be used about 95% of the time.   It’s a lot more work, but it keeps leaders on their toes and is much less lazy.
Another key principle to leadership in ministry is that there is a triangle of power.  In most secular organizations the president is usually at the top of the triangle of power, then vice presidents, then managers, then finally at the bottom are those who are actually doing the work…..but non-Christians use that pyramid.
I believe in a Christian pyramid….where the president is actually at the very bottom and the most important people at the top are those who actually do the ministry.  At Compassion there are two pyramids:  one represents those who touch the life of children and the other one is those who touch the life of the sponsor.  The management at Compassion is just a bridge between the sponsors and the children.
When I was in Haiti, I was doing the mission and touching the lives of children and at the top of the pyramid.  Now I’m at the other end of the spectrum and the most removed from the day-to-day ministry.  Sometimes I look at my calendar and there is not one activity that directly touches the life of a child and it’s hard to want to get out of bed.  But then my wife reminds me that I have to do what I do, so those in the field can do the ministry.  We all share in the same mission and I am excited about what happens as the result of our mission.
All of us in management are the supporting cast to those who work with the sponsors and/or children.


Amy: What is your definition of leadership?
Wess: I’d have to say, “Using your passion and vision to inspire others to reach their full potential to accomplish a very important cause or mission.” Everybody deserves a right to be in the right job.  If you know you are in the right job and you are using your natural giftedness and talents….doing your job should be a natural outgrowth of your heart, your passion, and your talents.
The most important thing I can do as a leader is surround myself with people who are in the right job.   You give them vision and passion and my job is let them do their job and get out of their way.
Wess’s book “Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most” makes a compelling case for global child advocacy.
If they are in the right job, you owe them the tools to do their job right: the right work environment, the right computer, the right tools etc.  You owe them your commitment to their success…balancing excellence and stewardship. Everybody needs to stretch and grow.  They don’t need to move up the org chart, but they do need new challenges; whether it be another degree, a new project, etc.  ….no one should be allowed to become stagnant!
Everybody deserves the right to be known and therefore loved.  Ministries often reflect their leaders.  I always meet with the new employees; giving them an opportunity to be known and loved as I ask them go around and introduce themselves and tell me something about themselves. They have the assurance they will be treated fairly and heard…it’s amazing how they will reach their potential.
I learned that from the school of hard knocks.
Amy: What do you see as the key principles in succeeding as a transformational leader in ministry?
Wess:  First, make sure what you are leading you really care about, either get a passion for it or get out of the way…..anything worth doing is worth doing well
Click on image to join Compassion’s #ItsAboutGiving Christmas Campaign
Second, understand your role as the greatest servant in the organization not the most important person in the organization. The organization is only as great as the what the organization produces…need to have measurable outcomes to show you are succeeding in your ministry.  In child development you have donors not customers; it requires more excellence than any for profit enterprise.
Third, the younger generation are not givers, they are investors…so you better demonstrate why your ministry is important and why it matters.  You can’t just say God loves the poor so you should too.  You can’t use pictures of guilt to produce pity.  The poor deserve to be presented with dignity.  You have to make the case why helping children in poverty matters.  You have to be very professional
Finally, if you lack integrity you lack everything.   If you cannot be trusted you have nothing to offer.  Integrity is everything…it means more than just funds.  Your marketing better be accurate and what you say your values are, you better be living it.  Deeds must match words.

Join Compassion’s #ItsAboutGiving Campaign for Christmas

See also:

Rebuilding Haiti One Child at a Time

Buried in Haiti rubble: 64 Hours of Unshaken Faith

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