Why Joel Osteen Took A Public Beating Over The Hurricane

Crisis tells us what we expect from our leaders

Joel Osteen took a beating in social media over his response to the hurricane. But there was more at play than just haters doing what haters do. Here is why Joel Osteen took a public beating over the hurricane.

According to Simon Sinek, an author and thought leader, humans had a very practical problem during the cave man period of our development. We lived in communities with a very limited number of people. And in those small communities, there was an attitude that could be described as “survival of the fittest.” When it was time to eat, the biggest, strongest person – The Alpha – was guaranteed to eat. The weakest person was not guaranteed to eat. That system kept the biggest, strongest person alive. But it was not a good system for the group. Why? Because the value of living in the group is that the people in the group trust each other. Indeed, if I trust you and you trust me, then I know I can sleep at night because you have my back. And you know you can sleep at night because I have your back.

Sinek would say the same thing applies to companies in the context of innovation. According to Sinek, if we trust each other, then we can take risks and innovate. And in the process, we can do the things that are necessary to change the world. On the other hand, if we do not trust each other, then we are not going to take risks.

We see the same thing in society when we consider the way that society treats its leaders. We are constantly assessing each other. We are constantly arranging ourselves around the Alphas among us. We are constantly determining who is the more dominant person in the room.

We have different standards for determining who is the Alpha among us. When I was in law school, the Alpha may have been the person who was considered the smartest. When I played football, you usually had an Alpha in each position group. For preachers, the Alpha might be the most effective public speaker. There was no real standard for determining Alphas, because the criteria varied by industry.

Once we determine who the Alpha in the group is, we allow that person to have the spoils that go to Alpha. Sinek says it like this: “Alphas get first choice of meat and first choice of mate. Good system. The rest of us may not get the best cut of meat but we will get to eat eventually, and we will not get an elbow in the face. Good system. We will happily alert them to danger later.”

But here’s the thing.

When society anoints someone the Alpha, there is an expectation that the Alpha respond to danger in a particular way. The Alpha is expected to run to the danger. The Alpha is expected to provide leadership in times of crisis. The Alpha is expected to put himself at risk to help others.

A recent example at my office should illustrate the point. A few weeks ago, a tropical storm made its way through Georgia. The CEO said the office would be open for a half day so that we could serve customers in regions of the country that were not impacted by the storm. Some employees found ways/reasons to stay home from work that day. Those employees were not treated negatively. Had the CEO chosen to take personal day, other employees would have been offended. If the office is going to be open with a tropical storm headed toward the city, then the CEO had better be in the office with the troops!

And that brings me to Joel Osteen.

Joel Osteen is the pastor of Lakewood Church, one of the largest churches in the country. His sermons are seen by millions of people each week. His sermons are broadcast on satellite radio 24 hours per day. He has written several books that made the New York Times best sellers list. His success and his position within his church make him the Alpha in the context of ministry. Hence, when the hurricane came through Houston, the community expected Osteen to provide leadership. For many, providing leadership in that moment meant, among other things, opening the doors of his church so that displaced Houston residents would have a place to stay.

Unfortunately for Osteen, the combination of negative images on social media and a poor initial public relations effort by Osteen and Lakewood Church led many to believe that Osteen had not fulfilled his responsibilities as the Alpha.

Lakewood church did a good job of responding to the critics once the church leaders decided to talk. But by then a lot of damage had been done. The haters, many of whom were not people of faith, were effectively casting Osteen as a pastor who got rich off his community and then abandoned it when the crisis came.

Leaders can learn a lesson from what happened to Osteen. Society generally is not offended by the fact that people in leadership positions make tremendous sums of money. However, society is deeply offended when it appears that the leader – the Alpha – has not fulfilled his or her responsibility to the community. Therefore, when you are in a position of leadership, you should be sure that you view any time of crisis as an opportunity to sacrifice for the those that you have had the privilege to lead.

I recently watched an interesting speech that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivered for TED Talks.  Sandberg provides the following advice for those women who are interested in having children and staying in the workforce: (1) sit at the table; (2) make your partner a real partner; and (3) don’t leave before you leave.

This would be a great speech to watch with your team, take notes, and then discuss.

He who knows not and knows not that he knows not, but thinks that he knows, is a fool – leave him alone. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child – teach him. He who knows, but knows not he knows, is asleep – wake him. He who knows, and knows that he knows, and uses what he knows, is a leader – follow him. — Willie Jolley (paraphrasing a German proverb)

What do you think?