The Steward Who Steps Back
By Kelsey McFaul
Construction professional Tom Absher, Jr. on leadership as irrelevance
“If you’re going to do a job, do it right.” This gritty epithet, attributed to Tom Absher’s grandfather Barney, infuses three generations of family-owned Absher Construction Company.
But what happens when, in Tom’s case, making sure the job gets done right means leaving it?
“I like everything organized and I want to contribute by making our organization better. But behind all that is the sense, if I can do those things then I’m tempted to have control….And I’m not really thinking in terms of how God is using me in this company.”
At 56 years old and long before he expected to, Tom retired as executive vice president of Absher. Based in Puyallup, Washington, the construction company has national scope and experience completing everything from federal and commercial to ecumenical and healthcare projects.
Tom grew up in the business and his brother still holds the leadership role. But in 2012, he and three other partners took a look at how Absher was changing and decided it was time to step back. As it turns out, steps back are characteristic of his stewardship journey.
“In the construction industry, it’s all about going out and trying to get work. What does it mean to actually deny yourself and realize you don’t have control in that context?”
“Sometimes you think, we’re going to get this job, no doubt about it, and we don’t get it. Or we have no way of getting it, we weren’t even the low bidder and we get it and it’s like a gift. That’s where I’ve really learned the most about surrender.”
Stewardship encourages the surrender of a leader’s self, and their relationships with God, others, and creation. For Tom, it’s surrender of self that proves most challenging.
“God is sovereign and he’s controlling everything, but sometimes I have this sense he still needs my assistance. It’s just human nature to think, God needs me, He’s gifted me in these things. And I think He uses those moments to say, you’re not giving up control, you’re trying to manipulate outcomes.”
Almost 10 years into his executive role, Tom attended a leadership retreat incorporating ability and personality testing and 360-degree feedback from colleagues, employees, and self-evaluation. The results were foundational to integrating his worldview with his business practice.
“I thought, everybody is going to think I’m a good leader and that I’m doing a good job. But the feedback was a total mixed bag of some positive and some really negative stuff. That was an eye opener….[It] really helped me understand my own effort trying to make things happen was not being received well.”
As a result, Tom’s focus began to shift from controlling outcomes to empowering people, stewarding the impact his employees had on the place they worked.
“We began investing in people to help them understand their role in this company. And part of that is truly hands off. I want you to be who God wants you to be. And that may not even be here.”
Business leaders who steward their employees see them as ends, not means.
Viewing people as means to an end evaluates an individual’s ability to get a job done, while viewing them as ends in themselves asks different questions: What is God’s plan for your life? How can we as a company help you be the person you were created to be?
“We’ll invest in you. I’m not going to look back and say, ‘Look at all the time and money we invested in that person and they left.’ If you’re going where you think you’re being led, I’m 100 percent behind you.”
With Tom’s vision, Absher Construction went from merely building buildings to building people.
“Career building is a burden. People building is not. So as a leader, if you can shift from building your own career to building other people to be who God intends them to be, there’s lots of freedom and joy in that.”
And this stepping back so others can step forward is a deeper pursuit of surrender.
“In business, you hear a lot of voices out there. Moving from business defined as success to significance to service is in the right direction, but all those things can be controlled and manipulated. So let’s move even beyond those things to doing business with selflessness. How do I be selfless in everything that I do?”
It is said the good leadership is working yourself out of a job. What happens when you’re actually faced with that situation? For Tom, this looks like taking himself out of the equation, along with the current environment, resources, or decisions at play.
“Where does God want this organization in the future? Not me. Where does he want something else done, something outside of myself?”
And when Tom asked these questions of Absher Construction, outside and in spite of his work developing employees, he knew it was time to step back.
“I never had that feeling I was forced out of my job way too early. God had prepared my heart to say my identity is not in my job. I’m a child of God to do his work. And whatever that is, I’ll do it.”
But just because he’s left the day-to-day workings of Absher doesn’t mean Tom is planning to retire.
“[A mentor] gave me some really sound advice that there’s no retirement. What are you going to do next? You need to be prepared to move on to something else. There’s a shift away from investing my life into people [at Absher], but who else am I investing in?”
While his job title might have changed, Tom, and his vocation, haven’t. And investing in others requires a continual rejection of his desire to control, to seek relevance.
Henri Nouwen, in his short book In the Name of Jesus, reminds us of the same truth, writing:
I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her vulnerable self….The leader of the future will be one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation…
Infused by a family legacy of building things well, Tom’s vocation builds people to be who they were created to be, even while stepping back.
“If you want to be of used by God, maintain a relationship with Jesus Christ. Focus on serving God and others. Leave the results to Him, and He will make use of every minute you live.”