Spencer W. Kimball, Sam Walton and Christian Leadership

By July 15, 2013

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.


[1] 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).

[2] Kimball was also a businessman within 15 years of the release of The Man Who Knows. Kimball worked in insurance and bonds in Arizona before being called as an LDS Apostle in 1943. This may have also had an impact on his thoughts regarding leadership training.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism


  1. Sometimes the convert in me pops up, amazed by the breadth (if not always the depth) of Christian subculture. I had no idea a book like The Man Nobody Knows existed. Thanks, Joey. It sounds like an interesting book.

    Comment by Saskia — July 15, 2013 @ 7:57 am

  2. How harshly does Moreton portray Walton? That is, does the book portray Walton as cynically exploiting employees or as simply finding people with whom he shared a common (or at least complementary) vision of how business should work?

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 15, 2013 @ 9:05 am

  3. Edje: She is critical, but fair concerning Walton. She doesn’t mention Walton’s death, but her final chapter on Wal-Mart and NAFTA (which was passed after Walton’s death) is harsher than other chapters on Walton.

    She has many stories of Walton being genuinely involved in people’s lives, although he wasn’t afraid to demand the best from his employees. I think that Walton saw an advantage to hiring like minded people, especially if those people would work long hours for low pay and no/few benefits. The poor financial compensation is evident in the early expansion period of Wal-Mart, when Walton was alive and well. In my opinion, Walton is admirable as a visionary but deplorable as an employer. I think Moreton is less harsh than I am.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 15, 2013 @ 9:46 am

  4. This a great post, Joey. I really enjoyed the book when I read this three years ago for coursework. I must say I remember thinking about how Sam Walton’s business model in regard to employees seemed highly compatible with the stereotypical (and often true) Mormon work ethic.

    It seems as though in my very limited knowledge and opinion that employees of companies run by Mormons have not had the same understandable difficulties and complaints that employees of Wal-mart have regularly expressed. A comparison between the Wal-mart work ethic with other businesses owned by different people of different religious backgrounds would be fascinating, Of course, there is the difference between a Mormon company and one owned by a Mormon.

    Glad you brought this book back to my attention.

    Comment by Natalie R — July 15, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  5. I spent 5 years working for WMT in Bentonville (I left only 18 months ago). Prior to joining WMT I had spent my entire career in the upper-Midwest where I was typically the only Mormon I knew at work. I thought it somewhat odd that out of the eight people who interviewed me for my initial job I was able to easily identify three of them as Mormon (BYU grads, originally from ID or CA, larger than usual families). Then I showed up on my first day and discovered I was surrounded by Mormons. As an example, at the last monthly finance review I attended, out of the 31 attendees in the room 17 were Mormon– more than half. There are three Stakes in the area. As a comparison the entire STL metro area with some 3M people only has 4 Stakes. My wife, a convert, had a hard time adjusting to such high-density Mormonism. She has a career of her own and found that she had little in common with the female transplants from the Mormon Corridor. In other Midwestern wards we got along nicely– most if the time the wards were just happy to have a new, active family in the ward even if culturally we were not stereotypical Mormons. Living in B’ville was a lot like what we imagine living in Utah to be. Ultimately we decided to leave because my wife laid out an ultimatum to the effect that we relocate or start attending church where we were more welcome.

    WMT is a Mormon company. Finance and marketing are the most Mormon dense followed by merchandising and IT. The c-level and VP offices are filled with Mormons. Since 2008 the US advertising has been run by a Mormon. “Save money, live better,” may have been coined by Sam but the decision to make it the centerpiece of WMT advertising came from a Mormon.

    I get so tired of the canard about “the exploitation of employees.” First, I have never been better compensated than when I worked for WMT and most everyone who joins WMT and then leaves does not do so to enhance compensation. Those who leave do so because they don’t fit the culture (like me). Even store-level associates are more than reasonably compensated as WMT pays @ the 60th percentile on a market by market basis. Please, put the exploitation canard away.

    Comment by Paul M — July 15, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

  6. Paul: Your insight into Wal-Mart corporate culture is very interesting. I’m glad that you shared your experience!

    My Wal-Mart experience is colored by what’s going on with the DC Wal-Marts rights now, as well as stories from with those who have worked at a Wal-Mart. I’m sure there has been embellishment on both sides concerning pay and benefits.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 15, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

  7. Fascinating, Joey. Thanks for highlighting this. Moreton’s book has been on my to-read list for quite awhile now.

    Comment by Christopher — July 15, 2013 @ 3:17 pm

  8. Really enjoyed this. I have skimmed the book, but look forward to that mythical time in the future where I have extra time to revisit it more exhaustively.

    Comment by Ben P — July 15, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

  9. Mormonism and business/leadership culture — endlessly fascinating topic. Thanks Joey.

    Comment by Bradley — July 15, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

  10. Served mission in the Oklahoma Tulsa Mission in 87-89 which included the Fort Smith Arkansas Stake, which the Fayetteville Ward and Sprindale Wards belonged. Back then Elder Bednar was a assistant professor of management at the University of Arkansas’ then College of Business of Administration. Elder Bednar served as Bishop of the Fayetteville Ward at that time for a short while, then as Stake President. Even back then as Bishop, then Stake Pres. in his mid-30’s he was impressive. It’s been amazing to follow the growth of the stakes in northwestern Arkansas since the mid 1980’s. Even back then, the Springdale and Fayetteville Wards were unusually strong for the Bible Belt.

    Comment by U240 — July 15, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

  11. I’ve often wondered about the level of Christian ethics within Walmart. This is great!

    Joey, I’d love to hear more, maybe another post, about the trend of the church leadership becoming those with management backgrounds (MBAs, etc.).

    Comment by Tod Robbins — July 20, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

  12. […] Spencer W. Kimball, Sam Walton and Christian Leadership (J Stuart, Juvenile Instructor) […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.29 (July 15-21) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — July 28, 2013 @ 10:04 pm


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