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How To Beat Chaos and Integrate Faith in The Workplace

Gary Harpst

Gary Harpst

Gary Harpst is CEO and Founder of, a leadership development company. Gary is a keynote speaker and insightful teacher who challenges and motivates his audiences. His passion is speaking about what effective leaders need to know, do, and be to overcome the chaos of everyday life. He unlocks biblical wisdom for unleashing the potential in every human being to lead themselves and others. Gary is recognized as one of the Top 100 of the nation’s top thought leaders in management and leadership by Leadership Excellence magazine. Because of his expertise, Gary is also interviewed and quoted by national and local media for newspaper and magazine articles and podcasts, radio, and TV interviews.

When owners and leadership teams can’t manage growth, it feels like chaos. Chaos gets in the way of accomplishing good works and creating Kingdom impact. Many Christ-following business owners long to be successful and care for their people in ways that honor God. When company and personnel growth creates leadership, management, communication, and performance chaos, you must compromise between building a great business and creating kingdom impact. That’s why we developed LeadFirst, the Kingdom Impact Leadership Platform for CEOs and owners who refuse to compromise on delivering whole-business and whole-person health in a faith-friendly way. When you conquer chaos with LeadFirst, you can build a great business, bring the fullness of life to your employees, and deliver kingdom impact.

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The Interview Transcript

0:01 – Hugh Ballou Hello, everyone. It’s Hugh Ballou, founder, and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation, where we work with leaders creating synergy in their teams and their cultures through the common vision. We are, in fact, the champion of the vision. That’s why we’re here. We have the vision for what could be, but sometimes we’re not so clear about That that people can understand, so we’ve got an interesting topic and an interesting guest today. My, my co-host, David and I are welcoming Hugh Ballou to the nonprofit exchange.

0:36 – Hugh Ballou So, Gary, would you please take a minute and share with our listeners and our viewers a little bit about who you are and what you do?

0:46 – Gary Harpst Yes, I grew up in Northwestern Ohio, which is a good farm country, a little bit like Nebraska and Iowa. Good corn grows here. But the significance of that is that my parents came out of the Depression, and I think about how that has shaped me. When I grew up in a family where you didn’t do just what you wanted to do, you did what you needed to do. And when you don’t have a lot, of prosperity, you do what’s necessary. And that became part of my culture, working hard and spending a lot of hours with my dad on the farm.

1:27 – Gary Harpst But I’ve always had this sort of hunger to understand how things work and put pieces together and analyze things sort of more analytically than anything else. And that has been the thread through my life. I had the pleasure of starting a business with two other fellows who were accounting software of all things. In our brilliance, we started the business about nine months before the IBM PC was introduced. That dates me. But my point is that we didn’t have enough intelligence to do market research or anything like that.

2:04 – Gary Harpst We just thought it was a good idea and did it. And of course, then the IBM PC comes along and the market explodes. And so we had years of we had to grow or percent a year just to keep up. We were losing market share if we weren’t growing that fast. And so I had years of thinking about systems and processes of growing businesses. We served growing businesses and we sold our products through growing businesses. So. Just a huge laboratory, a PhD in growth and mistakes, and all those sorts of things.

2:45 – Gary Harpst The next year, we sold that business and I spent a lot of time the last years coaching and helping other organizations that are rapid growth and putting in place processes for managing growth and building leadership. But I kind of divide myself up into 320-year periods. It looks, it looks like that’s the way my life is shaping up. I think it was Moses in the Old Testament who had year periods and so on. So my to was one 20-year period. The second was the coaching period, which was where I’m right now.

3:28 –Gary Harpst And my planning horizon is to to 90, be productive until So my next is focused on taking the technology we learned in the first with the coaching we learned in the second and we’re overlaying that with how do you integrate the soul part of your being into the way you manage a business. We refer to it as faith-driven. But regardless of your faith, there are certain things you believe that are not tangible, they’re the inner part of you. My last years are devoted to how to inject more of that into the way you manage a business.

4:11 – Hugh Ballou And we’re titling this episode, How to Beat Chaos and How to Integrate Faith in the Workplace. And that’s just core to who we are as leaders and the foundation. So I want to dig in a little more before I give David a go at giving you. Watch out. He’ll give you the hard questions. But before I give him a go, dig in a little more now. You’re an engineer. I’m a musical conductor. And we’re doing leadership. So people say, how come so this, but there’s a piece of our background and you just mentioned it equipped us.

4:43 – Hugh Ballou There’s a book. I forgot who is who wrote the book Show Strength to Strength. And he talks about it on our page, it’s the crystallized intelligence. That brings immense value so what I learned from people is like programmers engineers and conductors It’s the same skill set. You have a rigid structure. And you have to operate in that rigid structure without breaking the rules and be creative and effective. So it’s right-left brain operating. Is that how you would see yourself?

5:19 – Gary Harpst Yeah. And I like the idea of synergy because, well, I use the example of chocolate cake. There’s not one ingredient in a chocolate cake that would predict what the cake tastes like, And so it is with an orchestra or anything else. No one instrument predicts. And so the magic of synergy, of putting the right pieces together in the right shape and producing something you can’t imagine. So that’s left brain and right brain working together.

5:52 – Hugh Ballou Hey man, so what’s unique about you and from your back that makes you good at doing what you do and equipping leaders?

6:04 –Gary Harpst Well, I, I get a little personal here.  I think all of us have to ask questions about why are we here. And what are we, what. What’s the world all about? What’s my life all about? And for me, my faith journey has informed that decision. And so we, without, you know, different people believe different things. And so I’m not, that doesn’t bother me at all, but I think we’re all truth seekers. We’re all trying to figure out what the truth is in life. And so what I advocate for leaders is I happen to be of a Christian faith.

6:49 – Gary Harpst And so that faith informs the way I think about what reality is. The general principle is to think about who you are and what you believe and make sure it’s integrated into the way you build your business or your life. If we do that, regardless of what we believe, if we are true to what we believe, we’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t, and we’ll converge to a truth. What troubles me more than people who believe differently than I do, is that doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is people who don’t know what they believe and don’t practice what they believe, because that won’t lead them to the truth.

7:34 – Gary Harpst You see what I’m getting at? So, I think as leaders, spending a little more time thinking about the transcending values I have, and how that shapes the way I want to build and manage this organization.

7:49 – Hugh Ballou Yeah, so Gary Harpst, who’s a co-host, is the chair of our board of directors for Center Vision Leadership Foundation. And our job is capacity building in the nonprofit areas called capacity building. So, David, I think that’s a lot of stuff that synergizes with what we do, isn’t it?

8:04 – Hugh Ballou Yeah, that’s pretty much along the same lines. You described a lot of the things that we do and we talk about and we think about. But while we’re on the subject of you and how you think and what you do, could you tell us a little bit about some of the key accomplishments that you’ve had in your career or projects that you’ve been involved with? And then, especially as they relate to, and I don’t know if they are, because I didn’t have a chance to read it, but you’ve written a book called Built to Beat Chaos.

8:40 – Hugh Ballou Can you intertwine those two things for us?

8:43 – Gary Harpst Sure.

8:44 – Gary Harpst My first business was, I started when I was with two other fellows, and so first-time business owner, leader, and that business grew very rapidly, and after years, we made every mistake in the book. And survive by God’s grace, and I mean that literally, we ended up having a pretty large market share in our space, and we became an acquisition target, and we ultimately merged with our largest competitor and sold that whole combined entity to Microsoft. And that gave me the wherewithal to do financially what I wanted to do.

9:25 – Gary Harpst And my wife wanted me to get out of the house. That was the main objective So I was interested in taking what I had learned because we made so many mistakes on the journey from one person to people. The way an organization changes, the dynamics of what you go through as a leader, you start the business thinking about building a product. And then pretty soon, more and more of your time’s spent hiring people. And pretty soon, when you’ve got people, you’re no longer building products, you’re building an organization.

10:05 – Gary Harpst And you didn’t sign up for that. You didn’t even know that because it was the first time you went through this. And so in my second 20-year period, I wrote two books. One was Six Disciplines for Excellence. It was a model for small businesses to think through how to just work on the business. And then later on, Six Disciplines Execution Revolution was talking about how technology was enabling people to work together remotely and those sorts of things. This latest book, Built to Beat Chaos, was inspired, coming out of COVID, we had a client in Chicago that serves underserved healthcare needs.

10:55 – Gary Harpst And I remember in a coaching meeting with their leadership, Um, I don’t try to put yourself in the position of a healthcare organization during this. Uh, and overnight, I mean, in a very short time. Their demand for services went upfold. And, um, so what do you do? You work harder and pretty soon. The staff is exhausted. And the staff starts to miss, and so that exacerbates the problem. And so you see this chaos that I’m talking about. And I was in this meeting, and I said, what is the most important thing for you to do in the next days in this group?

11:39 – Gary Harpst And you know what? We voted on it. And the number one thing was to get time to think. And I just walked out of that room, the word chaos kept coming over and over, and I walked out of that room thinking humanity feels like it’s a victim of chaos. That chaos is the enemy. And the book itself, it takes some biblical principles from the creation story and turns that around and says, we’re not intended to be victims. Chaos exists to be our purpose. And I can elaborate on that if you want to drill into it, but

12:30 – Hugh Ballou Well, it might be good.

12:32 – Multiple Speakers Just a little bit more if you don’t mind.

12:33 – Hugh Ballou Yeah, go for it.

12:35 – Gary Harpst Yeah, so yeah, you know, most of us have attended Sunday school or something and just ask somebody, you remember the creation story and what was the first thing God created? And people will say, hmm, I think it was light, wasn’t it? And so if you look very carefully at the very first sentence in Genesis says, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and they were void and without form. And there’s a message there, in my opinion, that chaos itself is not evil. God created chaos before he created anything else.

13:13 – Gary Harpst And then he began to model for us what we are created to do. We’re created in his image to bring order out of chaos. And so that’s what he did. He created chaos first, and then he separated the light from the dark and the land from the sea. In my belief, and the premise of this book, is that if we quit looking at chaos as the enemy and view it as raw material, which is given to us from which to apply purpose, then the chaos melts away if you have purpose. If you don’t have purpose, you’re going to have chaos.

13:52 – Hugh Ballou That’s being anchored in principle. David and I work with nonprofits, religious organizations, businesses, And, you know, Gary, it’s pretty much the same stuff. And, you know, your anchor is being very clear on purpose. And that’s, you know, if I’m a conductor and I step on the podium and I’m not clear, it’s going to be cacophony, not just chaos, cacophony. It’ll hurt your ears and people will walk out. So, you know, there’s a lot of synchronicity in all of this. Richard Rohr, Franciscan author, speaker, and thought leaders, talking this quarter about a world on fire and specifically dealing with the fire.

14:35 – Hugh Ballou And it’s a refiner’s fire. So talk a little bit. I mean, you’ve had a journey as a CEO and your businesses, this, and then the people you work with. So what are the patterns for people? You know, we want to avoid conflict. We want to avoid risk. But, you know, there’s a refiner’s fire in working through some of those problems. And I’m sure you said you did everything wrong. There are some learning examples. And so to reframe mistakes into learning opportunities is what’s been helpful for me in my years.

15:14 – Hugh Ballou So any of that that you want to comment on, why are we risk averse and how do we approach the downside and make it better?

15:23 – Gary HarpstWell, let me back up to a little broader question. I remember in my first college class in sociology, a profound question was asked that I’ve been pursuing the answer to my whole life. And he said, why is it that the world has progressed so much technologically, but not at all sociologically? And bear with me on this thread, but it leads to why leadership, in my opinion, is the most important role there is. And when I say leadership, I’m going beyond a role where you’re a manager of people.

16:09 – Gary Harpst I’m talking about the idea that a leader does two things. They determine purpose, and then they organize resource to accomplish it. That’s what a leader does. Well, that applies to self. So this concept of picking purpose, and then organizing whatever you have at hand to accomplish it applies to self and it applies to groups. So, the essence of his question. I mean, this has taken me four decades to sort this out. My theory is that the reason we’ve progressed so much scientifically, but not socially, is scientifically or technologically, we have a set of rules that are the rules of physics and chemistry that are reproducible.

17:01 – Gary Harpst So all of life is about integration. You put together an orchestra to play a specific sheet of music. So there’s a lot of things being put together there, the synergy. Well, when it comes to science, we can study the rules of previous generations and build on them because they continue to work the same way. Physics continues to work, and we can compound the learning. But again, there’s a biblical view that says we’re created to have dominion, to rule in the world, but God tucks in this little hidden phrase.

17:36 – Gary Harpst He says, but you’re gonna have to multiply to do it. And therein is humanity’s biggest challenge is to accomplish what we’re created to, we have to work with other people to do it. And frankly, we don’t know how to do it. And the reason, you know, in the world of chemistry, everything’s made out of electrons, protons, and neutrons, and they’re all held together with electrostatic energy. Well, when you’re building an organization, what is the equivalent of the electromagnetic energy?

18:11 – Gary Harpst3 What is the equivalent of the thing that holds individuals to a shared purpose? What is that? The Bible would suggest it’s the way we treat each other called love. What is the role of a leader? The role of a leader is to craft purpose and then get people to work together to accomplish that purpose. To do that, they have to understand human chemistry just like a chemist has to understand Uh, the world, the rules of chemistry itself, but it’s a whole different set of rules. It has to do with telling the truth, being open and honest, having integrity, speaking truth, you know, all those things are part of human chemistry.

18:59 – Gary Harpst Oh, my goodness.

18:59 – Hugh Ballou What were the sentences you said a while ago that define leadership leaders are boom, boom? Do you want to hear that again? Please.

19:10 – Gary Harpst There are two roles of leadership. The first and most important is deciding what purpose is. The second is organizing resources to accomplish that purpose. And the resource can be people, it can be material, but you’re organizing it. And I do want to clarify something. People love writing books about purpose. It’s way more complex than saying, what is your purpose? There are multiple purposes. And when I say a leader has to choose purpose, if you’re a frontline supervisor, four layers deep in the organization, to choose the purpose of your group, you have to understand the purpose of your boss, so that your purpose aligns with your boss’s purpose, and your boss’s purpose has to align with the organization’s purpose.

20:02 – Gary Harpst So when I say it very simply, hey, you just have to decide the purpose and execute it. Well, duh. Deciding what purpose is is a huge challenge, and it’s why we have so much trouble in the world. If I get married, my purpose all of a sudden changes. Instead of me, I’ve got us. And then, I go to work for somebody and my boss has a purpose and he wants me to do certain things that might conflict with us. And so a lot of the conflict in the world is we don’t know how to realign our purposes.

20:40 – Hugh Ballou Yes and leaders are very good at sharing that and knowing how to share that. David defined leadership in seconds. We had people take minutes. We still didn’t get it. So I think, Gary, it’s misunderstanding what leadership is. And as a conductor, people think we’re a dictator. Well, you got a bunch of union musicians. You got this little white stick. You can’t make anybody do anything. You can influence them, but you have to be clear. David, do you want to pick up on that?

21:09 – Hugh Ballou Well, yeah, and I’m sure as you’ve described as a Christian, let’s say CEO, you’ve run businesses in the past, you’ve built your own business. What kind of lessons have you learned or insights that you’ve gained that are specific to running that type of organization?

21:28 – Gary Harpst Well, I don’t think it’s unique to Christians in general. People, I think of it as a hierarchy at the base level of this pyramid. What does anybody, I don’t care what your faith system is, anybody wants to work for a stable organization. That I’ll have a job next year like I do this year. Hopefully, it’s growing, so I might have some opportunity to grow and develop. I would like to be treated well, and paid fairly. I’d like it to be an honest environment. These are basics. It doesn’t matter what civilization you come from I think it was C.S.

22:04 – Gary Harpst Lewis said, the key to understanding man and the universe is that we all want the same things and none of us do it.

22:13 – Gary Harpst Oh, that’s great.

22:15 – Hugh Ballou Oh, that’s great.

22:16 – Gary Harpst Yeah, it’s one of my favorite quotes of all time. Anyway, so back to your question, as you’re building an organization, the first thing that’s most important in our model, in the world’s model, in my opinion, is you’ve got to decide what the purpose of that organization is. Is the purpose to generate maximized profit and you sell the thing when you’re done? Is the purpose to have an impact on your community? I’m not critiquing what your purpose is. I’m just saying you ought to be clear about what the purpose is.

22:50 – Gary Harpst The reason is you can’t design a plan to execute it until you know what the purpose is. So the second layer that we’re seeing more of now emerging is the recognition we have a very lonely society. In one of your previous podcasts, I heard some discussion about that. I think COVID accelerated it. You see the statistics of drug usage in the last years have gone up percent, and suicides have gone up. There’s more of a recognition of a need for a second layer in business, whether it’s faith-based or not, which is called soul care.

23:32 – Gary Harpst They’re co-opting that term to remain that we as businesses should take care of people more holistically, not just eight hours that they’re working for us, but try to understand, are there things we can do for them at home? If we help them at home, it helps us at work and vice versa. That soul care is faith-independent. Most people want to be cared for. That’s an interesting story. I talked to, I don’t know if you ever heard of chaplaincy organizations. They’re a form of faith-based organization that will be contracted to come into an organization and just get to know people and be available to them to talk to them.

24:18 – Gary Harpst3 What’s been proven statistically is somebody outside the organization can come alongside and care for people and do things that somebody inside cannot. And so they’ve tried to run these same programs, these caring programs, through the HR organization and has about adoption. This has been going on for some years. But now when they use chaplaincy, the adoption is more like time And the reason is people are, they trust talking to somebody outside the organization more than they do inside.

24:55 – Gary Harpst And this has nothing to do with faith. But let me get back to the point. I was talking to one of these guys who does chaplaincy, except they have no faith component at all. They avoid talking about any kind of faith. They want to stay away from that because there are a lot of companies that don’t want to get into that controversy. And I said, so what is it that you’re doing for these people if you don’t talk about faith? And he said, well, basically, we are a friend for hire. We’ve gotten to the point in our society where our large institutions are realizing that our society is crumbling.

25:38 – Gary Harpst And the institutions are paying people to be the friend of the people who work for them.

25:44 – Hugh Ballou Wow. You know, my audience is nonprofit leaders and they are operating a business. It’s not a for-profit business. It’s a for-purpose enterprise. And the more and we need to hear that message because we don’t do that care for our volunteers, for our staff, for our board, whether it’s a church or synagogue or local charity, a membership organization like a chamber of commerce or university. There are lots of models of a tax-exempt organization. But they all need to hear that message.

26:15 – Gary Harpst They do.

26:16 – Gary Harpst And I think we’ve made a huge mistake where we do believe different things, and we shouldn’t ram them down people’s throats. And Jesus didn’t do that. Never did. But we’ve thrown the baby out with bathwater because we’ve ended up saying, we don’t know how to talk about these things, so let’s not talk about them at all.

26:35 –  Oh, my. Yes. Right.

26:37 – Gary Harpst And so we avoid the topic. Now, I was listening to the story of an organization that was of Muslim faith, and they came to this Christian organization and gave them more and more business over time. And the Christian owner talked to the Muslim and said, why do you do business with us? We believe very different things. And they said we do business with you because we know you’re motivated, to be honest. We know that your faith says that being honest is important. We may not agree with your faith, but we know what motivates you.

27:14 – Gary Harpst You see the difference? And that’s my argument to say to somebody, well, why should I work for a Christian? You know, those guys are weird and extreme and mean and whatever. And I say, no, the reason to work for them is they have some framework they can articulate that is their set of values, and they are held accountable by God to treat you right. Whether you believe in that God or not, you benefit from the fact that they believe in that God.

27:40 – Hugh Ballou Well, and, you know, there are a lot of organizations in any sector who veer from what we say we are. And so, you know, you’re talking about the way people behave the way they apply their principles, and the way they, they stand in integrity, which, you know, they can, they can be all over the place with any kind of institution, but You know, Gary, you mess with people got us inspired. You got us thinking differently. So they’re going to want to know where to find you. So I’m going to show to people watching the video.

28:10 – Hugh Ballou I’m going to show you a website, but people that that is it’s lead 1st dot a I. So when people go to your website, what will they find?

28:20 – Gary Harpst Well, they’ll find a series of tools. The most important thing we do is sit down with leaders and say, what is your purpose? We don’t ever try to tell somebody what their purpose is. We’re open about what our purpose is. But if you can’t get purpose right, nothing else matters. And so that’s where we start with people. And then if they want help implementing purpose and integrating the way their business runs and managing growth, hey, growing a business is incredibly difficult.

28:51 – Gary Harpst You know, you got a person organization versus a or 50 keeping people on the same page, managing projects, managing metrics. It’s a huge challenge. And so we have the benefit of we can help on both sides.

29:07 – Hugh Ballou I think a subtitle of what I heard you say is not only lead first, but people 1st.

29:11 – Gary Harpst Yes, that’s a good point.

29:13 – Hugh Ballou It’s, it’s a sub theme David, you’re going to add to that. We’re going to, I’m going to ask you now, what do you people got inspired? You know, what can they do with something they’ve learned? But David, you want to do a quick where we’re out of time today, but you want to comment.

29:28 – Hugh Ballou I find the principles that Gary’s sharing are pretty much human principles with a little religion or faith or whatever you want to call it mixed in. But they don’t necessarily follow, quote-unquote, the Christian mentality. It’s the reason why we’re here all together. It’s love-based. And treating people fairly and understanding going forward. I think you’ve done a remarkable amount of information share in just less than minutes, and I appreciate that.

30:09 – Gary Harpst We’re all on a learning journey.

30:12 – Hugh Ballou He’s done this before, Davis. So, Gary, thank you for spending time with us. What final thought or charge or tip do you want to leave people with today?

30:21 – Gary Harpst I want to encourage people, if you feel overwhelmed, like the chaos has eaten you alive, stop and close the door and think deeply about what your purpose is. And that will start to bring some clarity of what to let go of and what to focus on. And then it’ll break some of that power the chaos seems to have on you.

30:47 – Hugh Ballou Barry Harpst, lead first. Thank you for being our guest today on the Nonprofit Exchange.

30:56 – Hugh Ballou Thank you very much.

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