I’ve worked for some horrible bosses in my day, and a few good ones. The bad ones treated me like I was disposable. Tom made fun of me for being an altar boy, Chris reminded me every week that there were a hundred other punks who’d be happy for a job at Footlocker, Norm told me he didn’t expect me to be smart but he wished I wasn’t always so dumb, and Ray told me he wished he had the power to fire me.


The good news is my lousy bosses were managers at low-level jobs. The better jobs had managers who understood that I was a human being on a path of development. I wasn’t yet the best possible version of David McDonald, but they wanted to help me become better as fast as possible—not just because they wanted something more from me, but also because they wanted something good in me.


Dave Klassen asked me challenging questions and gently exposed holes in my thinking. Vince McLaren modeled servant leadership for me and watched while I slowly but surely spread my wings. And Gordon McDonald, my dad, reminded me of the stakes and the significance of Christian ministry for both the ministers and the congregants.


I found a note in one of my old journals that said, “Here are the 4 qualities I most respect in my leaders.” I’ve adapted that note, and thought I’d share it here, since I’ve benefitted greatly from leaders who understand what it means to love their employees.



1. Make people feel significant

Perhaps the single most important factor in leadership of any kind involves helping people recognize their unique contribution. They need to know what they’re doing matters. My friend Missy tells everyone her job is “killing cancer.” She’s a radiation therapist. Missy has been well-taught. She knows exactly why her contribution matters. She’s not thinking about statistics or fatality rates or the probability of failure. All Missy thinks about is killing the thing that’s killing others.


Conversely, I have a very good friend who’s a teacher and absolutely hates her job. Not because she’s a teacher (she’s been a teacher for nearly twenty years), but because she feels like she doesn’t matter to her employer. He doesn’t speak to her, evaluate her performance, give her direction, or respond to the messages or suggestions she leaves him. She feels like it wouldn’t matter if she never showed up to work again. My friend has only been at her current job for three years. She transferred for better pay. But more money doesn’t compensate for less significance. She will eventually quit and move on, because money matters less than meaning.


2. Teach everyone that learning and competence matter

Whether you’re leading volunteers, paid staff, or contract workers, it’s important to constantly celebrate excellence, innovation, and development. Make a big deal of milestone achievements—the completion of a Master’s degree, the acquisition of a certification, the success of a recent project—and use those opportunities to remind everyone there’s room to grow. Continuously.


Patrick Lencioni famously said “leadership is the promise of development.” Don’t misunderstand. He doesn’t mean leaders have to be the ones who offer development through their own insights, brilliance, and winsome coaching. The “promise of development” includes direct contribution from the leader but also includes the way the leader handles outside development, meaning the leader must celebrate ways in which their employees grow without them. Don’t be threatened by staff members who outlearn you, outgrow your leadership, or outpace your core competencies. Cheer them on.


3. Inspire community

Good friends make even bad jobs enjoyable. We all know this is the reason for teambuilding games and community events. However, most organized relationships feel more strained than special. The trick is to facilitate relational connection without necessarily calling attention to the importance of relationships.


Consider the following two scenarios. In the first, imagine six people seated around a coffee table in their staff room with a set of 3×5 cards. Each card has a deeply personal question written on it. Each person must ask their question to the group, and everyone must respond. In the second scenario, imagine six people who have been sent to a day-long workshop an hour away from the office. They carpool (to save money), but in exchange, their employer agrees to buy lunch at a restaurant of their choosing.


Which of these scenarios do you think is more likely to produce healthy relationships? The first, in which intimacy is celebrated, held up as a goal, and managed? Or the second, in which work, fun, and casual conversation are all rolled in together?


The moral? Feed them steak before you ask about their feelings.


4. Incite vision

It’s common for people who love their coworkers, and even enjoy their own daily tasks, to still be disheartened by where they work. An administrative assistant may enjoy the company of his office pals and find satisfaction in organization but still feel ambivalent about working for an insurance company he suspects of fraud. As a result, there will be countless little moments where said employee doesn’t perform his best, subtly undercuts the mission of the organization, and looks for ways to get out, possibly taking his friends with him.


That’s why it’s pertinent to reinforce the vision for your employees. By “vision” I don’t mean “vision statement.” (Please don’t spit out your corporate words at every possible opportunity in hopes that they eventually become meaningful.) Real vision concerns the underlying reason you think your organization is good, meaningful, and necessary. Tell people why you believe in what you’re doing. Tell stories about the positive contributions your organization has made in the lives of others. Ask key members to share about their positive experiences and reward them for speaking out and following through.


If you’re unsure how to cast vision, imagine your employees are always asking “So what?” and try to answer that question in a new way every 4-6 weeks. If, for example, you’re running a spa, there’s only so many times you can say your vision is to “provide health and wellness for all” before your massage therapists start rolling their eyes and your front desk staff stares back at you blankly. You’ve got to tell stories about people who love coming to your spa, befriend repeat customers and learn about what’s keeping them relaxed and balanced. You’ve got to make sure your employees see the mothers and daughters coming in for a little bonding, and celebrate the positive changes that happen during the massage (from “stressed out” to “carefree” in twenty minutes) so everyone connects the dots.  Don’t tell people what your vision is; show them how it works and why it matters.


And that, actually, is at the heart of all thriving organizations: knowing what matters, knowing who matters, and knowing why it matters at all.


Even if it’s just for your local Footlocker.