Over the past few days, I have been reading Bethany Moreton’s brilliant To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Moreton highlights how Sam Walton and Wal-Mart utilized the unique religious, cultural, and political leanings of the Ozarks to build the largest corporation in the world. Moreton skillfully outlines how Walton brilliantly “kept things local” while building his global brand, borrowing money from family and local banks rather than from New York banks. Additionally, he hired local talent to work as managers. Furthermore, Walton employed women who enjoyed the face-to-face interaction that working at Wal-Mart provided, who also did not need insurance or other benefits because their husbands were employed full-time.
One of the most interesting aspects of Wal-Mart’s ascendancy to global power is how it learned to hire their corporate and managerial talent from the small Christian schools in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. John Brown University, Oklahoma Christian University, and other small schools seeking business donors to keep the school afloat, developed their business program’s curricula along the principles of free enterprise and small government. Graduates of these schools were a natural fit for Wal-Mart. Students who enrolled at these small schools were likely to originate from the Ozarks and valued working for a company that extolled family values and free enterprise; principles that had been reinforced and introduced to them during their university education. Furthermore, because these Christian university graduates saw themselves as working for a higher cause (a “Christian” corporation, as Wal-Mart was perceived to be), they accepted verbal and public praise instead of salary raises, job security and better benefits. Wal-Mart also recruited managers who were willing to travel often, in order to stay in touch with those that they led and fostered a mentor-mentee relationship in order to improve employee performance.
These graduates also fit in well with Wal-Mart’s “servant-leader” leadership model, which grew out of Bruce F. Barton’s international bestseller The Man Nobody Knows. Management was expected to lead by example, with humility and to pay attention to their individual employees. As managers acted from positions of both strength and compassion, management would develop trust and accountability with their underlings. Barton’s self-assured, masculine Jesus was able to lead others because He knew who he was and what He should be doing at all times: and so would managers if they followed His example.
So what does this have to do with Mormon History? Moreton notes that Wal-Mart specifically recruited business students from Brigham Young University when Wal-Mart began offering internships outside of the Ozark region in the late 1970s. Latter-day Saints have regularly been lauded as good businessman and BYU’s Marriott School is well respected nationwide. Wal-Mart’s interest in BYU made business sense, presumably for the same reasons that Wal-Mart recruited out of small Christian universities: BYU grads had a Protestant Work Ethic, were interested in furthering family values, and valued working for a corporation that promoted Christian/family values. In short, Mormons wanted to live by principle and build meaningful relationships while making their living, rather than merely pursuing financial security.
Mormon leaders valued managerial traits in many of the same ways that Wal-Mart did. In 1977, Spencer W. Kimball gave a speech entitled “Jesus: The Perfect Leader,” which incorporated several aspects of leadership that Wal-Mart embraced, in the tradition of The Man Nobody Knows. Kimball told a group of young LDS businessman that Jesus was the perfect leader, because:
1. “Jesus knew who he was and why he was here on this planet. That meant he could lead from strength rather than from uncertainty or weakness.”
2. “The leaven of true leadership cannot lift others unless we are with and serve those to be led.”
3. “We can show forth our love for others even when we are called upon to correct them. We need to be able to look deeply enough into the lives of others to see the basic causes for their failures and shortcomings.”
While it must be remembered that Kimball gave this while speaking to a group of young business leaders, it was reprinted in the Ensign, the LDS Church’s official magazine. This is not to suggest in any way that Kimball was religiously insincere in attributing these attributes to Jesus, but to show that the religious, leadership and business cultures of the 1970s appears to have had an effect on Kimball.
If anyone is currently conducting research on LDS leadership training, I would love to hear how this either fits in or goes against what else was being taught in the late 1970s.
 The Man Nobody Knows was the first major book to portray Christian business ethics by suggesting how Jesus Christ was the perfect businessman. It was one of the best selling books of the 20th century (per Wikipedia).