I once heard about a woman who liked to tell her entrepreneur husband, “You can do whatever you want. You’re the CEO.” She said this when he wrestled over a decision, when he wondered what others might think, and when he accepted more modest perks and benefits to try to save the company money.
On the surface, her words seemed extremely supportive. She was affirming her husband’s wisdom and decision-making in his role as leader of his company and encouraging him to use his authority.
But the longer I thought about her statement, the more it unsettled me. If her husband truly took her advice at face value and behaved accordingly, the consequences could be disastrous. He might stop taking others into account; he might not seek advice or input; he might not take the time to carefully consider his decisions or to learn from his mistakes. In the end, such an approach could actually harm his business, his character, and even their relationship.
Integrity is essential
As I’ve spent time in various business and start-up circles, I’ve found that being a supportive spouse of an executive or leader isn’t as simple as we might think. We want to show unconditional love toward and acceptance of our partners—but that’s not the same as affirming all of their behaviors, choices, and perspectives.
In the workplace, leaders already have a tendency to surround themselves with yes-men. One study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management stated that corporate leaders are “subjected to high levels of ingratiation in the form of flattery and opinion conformity.” As a consequence, this “can increase CEOs’ overconfidence in their strategic judgment and leadership capability, which results in biased strategic decision making.”
In Silicon Valley, where I live, we’ve recently seen the very public failures of several successful business leaders who apparently had few checks on their behavior. They defrauded investors, sexually assaulted or harassed women, and created toxic work cultures. Far beyond biased strategic decision-making, what ailed these executives seemed to be an utter loss of integrity. Unsurprisingly, this has been costly for the individuals and their corporations. Studies have found that the higher up in an organization a leader is, the more essential integrity is to his or her success.
This is true not just of business leaders. I believe any ambitious professional in a leadership capacity is at risk of this same blindness, regardless of his or her industry. Nonprofit leaders, ministry leaders, pastors, academics, and others are all susceptible to wanting to think they already know best and can do whatever they want. Sadly, most of the colleagues who surround them will likely only feed this misperception.
The high levels of ongoing stress that leaders and managers tend to be under doesn’t help. While conducting research for Start, Love, Repeat, my book about marriage and entrepreneurship, I spoke with Dave Phillips, an executive mentor who has worked with hundreds of CEOs and entrepreneurs. “The more stress people get under, the more their time horizons narrow, the less far they can see into the future,” he explained. “They will not see the natural consequences of their actions.”
The gift of hard conversations
This is where spouses, I believe, are uniquely positioned to challenge the ambitious leaders we love. We see our husbands and wives more clearly and intricately. We can speak to them from the love and security of a committed relationship, rather than as an employee or business partner.
It is not, to be clear, about tempering or critiquing our spouses’ ambitions. Those who pursue bold callings with integrity and righteousness have the opportunity to honor God and serve others in a high-impact way. Scripture, after all, encourages us to “let your light shine before others” (Matt. 5:16, NRSV) and to “serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” (1 Pet. 4:10, NRSV). As CT editor-at-large and author Katelyn Beaty writes in A Woman’s Place, “For Christians to live as the tsaddiqim [Hebrew for “the righteous”] on the earth, they need the doggedness, vision, and shrewdness that are markers of people who shape and lead our society in profound ways.” We need godly people in positions of power, influence, and decision-making in every industry and area of work.
As spouses, we can help place those ambitions in perspective, in the larger picture of God’s work in the world and in our lives. There are plenty of other voices in the world who will provide both judgment and acclaim based on worldly accomplishments; in contrast, we can do our best to ensure that our partners think and act in consistently God-honoring, kingdom-building ways.
Our first concern shouldn’t be what our spouses can or cannot do, but who they are and who they are becoming. “Loving something and purifying something go hand in hand,” writes Gary Thomas in Sacred Marriage. “A husband who truly loves his wife will want to see her grow in purity. A wife who truly loves her husband will want to see him grow in godliness. Both will put growth in godliness above affluence, public opinion, or personal ease.”
As ambitious individuals get pulled in the direction of ego, insulation, and acclaim, their spouses can serve a counterbalancing function: to provide honest feedback in a gentle and loving way. The deepest expression of unconditional love can come in the form of difficult-to-hear truths, of illuminating areas of weakness, blindness, and potential sin. As Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”
One business owner I interviewed told me how her husband challenges her to set better boundaries with work. “He’ll come in [to my home office] and stop me and ask me to spend time with family,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from him. He really prioritizes time with family and self-care.” Another entrepreneur told me how his wife “has protected me from myself” by monitoring their family finances and helping him to weigh the risks in his decision-making. Others have been challenged by their spouses to delegate more or to focus their goals more, in order to provide better health and stability for the family.
Love is more than affirmation
In my own 12-year marriage to an entrepreneur and now CEO, I have often felt like the lone voice that asks my husband to pay more attention to things other than work, including his health and our marriage and family. When he shares about a difficult work situation, I have often posed tough questions about his decision-making process or the treatment of the people involved. I have encouraged him to seek advice and prayer from mentors and friends and to prioritize relationships and his spiritual well-being even when he was feeling overstretched.
And while I have probably come across as a nag more often than I would like, I believe that, in the end, my husband and I have both benefited from these hard conversations. He knows I speak from a place of love and respect, and when he, in turn, challenges me, I know he has similar motives. Our relationship, as well as our individual characters, have experienced the fruit of this shaping and gentle nudging toward maturation.
But my husband’s career has benefited as well. His willingness to accept difficult feedback from me has prepared him to better listen to his colleagues, partners, and employees. Aware of his own shortcomings and blind spots, he regularly seeks guidance and input from others. He is willing to ask for help when he is uncertain what the path of greatest integrity and righteous leadership is. In all these ways, he is better equipped to serve the mission of his company and the people under his care.
Being supportive of our ambitious leaders in a way that shapes their character toward godliness isn’t always easy. It requires a measure of courage in its own right, as we choose the perspective that few in our spouse’s inner circle will give over affirming platitudes.
No, you may not be able to encourage your spouse to do whatever he or she wants. But in the end, they will be able to do so much more because you were willing to love them by speaking up and holding them to account.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is the author of Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-Up World. An award-winning writer and editor, she is a columnist for Inc.com.