When he was CEO of 40,000-employee international energy corporation AES, maverick entrepreneur and Christian philanthropist Dennis W. Bakke realized that many of his employees were missing something God meant for them to have at work: fun. By fun, Bakke means the kind of co-creative thrill that Adam must have felt while naming the animals.

So Bakke made radical changes. As a result, about 99 percent of all decisions at the company were made not by bosses or board members, but by the employees in the trenches. He eliminated the management class and human resources department. He began paying everyone according to the same scale. Almost every employee at the company gained access to all financial data. All employees were allowed to make statements to the public about the company, including to shareholders.

Bakke's fun at AES ended in 2002 when, under shareholder pressure during the energy crisis following the Enron scandal, he submitted his resignation. But his ideas are so fascinating, if controversial, that his bookJoy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job (PVG, 2005) made The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal business bestseller lists. Associate editor Agnieszka Tennant recently interviewed Bakke. This is the longer version of the conversation that ran in the July 2005 issue of the print edition.

Some people find it hard to utter the words joy and work in the same breath. Is this idea even biblical?
Of course! I was teaching from the parable of the talents at a church stewardship class. The boss sends folks out to make all the decisions. He doesn't guide them from afar. He says, "Come back when you've risked all, invested things, made decisions." The people who take the biggest risks are the ones rewarded. The one who didn't take any risks gets soundly chastised. Someone in the class pointed out this little tag line that follows after the master says, "Well done, good and faithful servant." And what does it say? "Enter into the master's joy."

When did you first realize that your employees weren't having fun?
When I visited our plant in Monaca, Pennsylvania, I was told that after a person joins the plant—often right out of high school—within two weeks of doing shift work, that person will figure out the day they can retire, and circle that date. That's like a jail sentence: You go in, and now everything you think about is when you can get out. Many people feel that way about their job, because they're told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. But when they talk about sports or games, what do they say? It's something they get to do; it's great; it's fun! So I said, "Maybe I can figure out something from games and lasso it and bring it back into the workplace." Let's take basketball. What's the most fun thing to do in basketball?

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To score?
To have the ball and to shoot the ball. When's the most fun time to shoot the ball?

The final seconds of the game?
And what's the score?

A tie?
Michael Jordan once said something like this: "Forty-nine times in my career I had the ball at the end of the game to win or lose." And then he said something very interesting: that he lost more games than he won. Did Michael Jordan love the game of basketball even though he lost? There's never been anyone more passionate about the game.

How does this translate into the workplace?
The way we're made is not to win—it's to be in the position to use our skills, our gifts, our God-given abilities to do something, to take action, to make a difference that actually affects the outcome of the game. And it doesn't mean winning. We are to be faithful and use our skills to the best of our ability. That's what makes us filled with joy. We can work hard to win, but the joy comes from being able to compete.

I play on an old men's basketball team, and we keep score. Now why would people who are slow and old, why do we keep score? Because it's part of the fun. It's part of the way we were made. God made us in a way that we want to hold ourselves accountable. We want to keep score.

What was stopping your subordinates from experiencing joy?
I was. I was the manager, instead of being a leader. I had to sacrifice some of my fun. All bosses have fun. I understood why—because I had the ball all the time. I had control. I went to Harvard Business School, which teaches you that you are God and you can make all the decisions and control the world. But God gave up his power—he still has the power, but he gave us the chance to make the decisions.

What did it mean for you?
I decided I'd limit myself to making one decision a year, and tried to get every one of my leaders to do the same. I don't know whether we were successful at that completely, but that allowed lots of very important decisions to be made by people who ordinarily would not have the chance to make them—all the decisions, including the ones about finances, hiring, firing.

How did you make sure the employees knew enough to make good decisions?
Good bosses, when they have a problem, get their team together and say, "Give me your advice." It's called participative management. It was a first good step away from just telling employees what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

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I turned that around. Instead of me making the final decision, an employee close to the project was appointed to do it. All he or she had to do before making that decision was get the team together, including the boss, and ask for advice.

Our board meetings were really fun. We never voted. Each board member would give their advice on the phone to an employee who was, say, going to buy a billion-dollar plant in England, and most board members had never met the person. It takes a lot of trust. They were a little skittish about this. After everybody would get their advice in, we'd hang up the phone. We'd say, I wonder what Jim's going to do. And three days later we'd find out.

What makes Joy at Work different from similar workplace management books, such as Good to Great by Jim Collins?

These kinds of books contain good ideas, but some have turned respecting an employee's dignity into a technique. That's a troublesome thing to me. The irony is, if you aim for a goal like making money or productivity and you use the idea of the dignity of all persons as a technique to create joy, you don't get joy and you lower your chances for increased productivity. The motives are then wrong on the part of the leader. I don't think that's been understood even by Christians very well.

Is the Joy at Work philosophy a management style—one that happened to fit your personality—or is it more than that?

A lot of Christians say to me, "This is just a management style." I think giving up power, sharing power, and allowing people to make decisions is just part of how God made us. Obviously, out in the secular world, it's an option. But I don't think we as Christians have an option. We do not have an option to control everybody's life. We do not have an option to take over all the important decisions. At least that's how I read the Parable of the Talents. And in Genesis I read that bosses were not supposed to be the ones making all the decisions. In fact, I don't think management is a really good thing. You manage systems and you manage money, but people ought to be led.

How are CEOs responding to your book?
Unfortunately, most Christian CEOs have bought into the idea of a segmented society, and they would like to protect employees rather than free them. They want to be nice to them, and treat them, they say, with dignity. They tend to live out their faith in terms of personal piety. But they don't understand the implications of falling into the Industrial Revolution trap of structuring a workplace. Servant leadership is about giving up. It's about loving people enough that you're willing to sacrifice some of your own power to give them a chance to use their skills and gifts to make a difference in the world.

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You're pretty hard on the church in the last chapter of your book.
I'm pretty hard on it in terms of my own struggles in the church. I call it abuse in the pew. The church didn't even recognize my mission as being a legitimate. I never could get commissioned, even though I asked for it.

What should be the local church's relationship to the business world?
We prize lifestyle and workplace evangelism as being very important, which they are. But God cares just as much about the economics. When was the last time your church prayed to commission the carpenter or an executive?

I don't think churches should run social services or businesses. They shouldn't own clothing stores to serve the community or run food pantries. Churches are usually terrible at running them. They're not economically sustainable, and they don't really help the poor as much as if you just had a really good business. Churches should send their people out to start businesses to serve people's needs.

The church does not pay much attention to the mission we have to steward resources and to meet needs in the world and, along the way, meet our own needs. The pastor ought to be figuring out how we are going to equip somebody to go be the president of AES or the secretary at AES. And how you're equipping them is not teaching them the skills. Your mission is just like Daniel's mission and Joseph's mission, and you ought to be doing it as unto the Lord. This is not primarily for evangelism, but for delivering services to others. You are there to do the stewardship mission, the Genesis mission. As a church, we're all called to both discipleship and stewardship.

And both are equally important in your mind?
Lately, I've been asking Christians which one of four things I've done in my life is most valued by God and therefore by the church. One, I spent nine years coaching my sons in football. Two, I created and led a company that supplied 100 million people with electricity. Three, my wife and I have a foundation that will this year passed the $50 million mark in our history of giving to Christian ministries and Christians around the world. Four, I wrote a book called Joy at Work. Which of those four does God value most?

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I get interesting answers. What people really want to say is, "kingdom stuff." For some it's family, for others, it's my foundation. The real answer, biblically, is of course they're all the same. And that's where the church needs to change. They need to preach and teach and honor and help and commission the folks who are doing the stewardship mission to serve the world, just like they do with the people who are involved in making disciples.

Why did you step down as CEO of AES?
It was a matter of whether or not I was going fight. I think there were enough people on the board who wanted me to step down. And to stay I would have had to start a big, nasty internal fight. I was by far the largest individual shareholder and I had tremendous support inside the company and the employees would have rallied around me. But I could have destroyed the company. I could have set it back. It costs a lot of money to make the fight and it would have distracted everybody from trying to really dig out from the hole that mostly Enron had put forth by messing up all the capital markets and everything that made it an extremely difficult time for us.

You picked an unknown publisher. Why? Is he related to you?
My sister married his uncle, but he's not related to me. He had just finished publishing a book, I was thinking about getting an agent, and he spent all night teaching me about publishing. His philosophy is he's going to pick one book every two years and concentrate totally on that. He wants to take books only that had a chance to make the New York Times bestsellers list. And that's what he's doing.

Has he published any bestsellers before your book?
No. He had only published one other book, so that's all.

That was a risky move for you to publish with him, if you ask me.
You're right, it was probably risky. But I'm very happy. I think to The Wall Street Journal it didn't seem to matter.

Congratulations on making the bestseller lists. It's highly unusual what you did.
Well, it isn't as if I've always done the usual thing in life, as you can tell.

Related Elsewhere:

Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.

Dennis Bakke's website has more info about the book, including a video interview with the author, Bible studies, and a way to anonymously send an email to your boss telling him to read the book.

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Other business-related articles include:

The Missions of Business | What can happen when entrepreneurs think they are missionaries first. (April 2004)
Compassionate Capitalism | How Christians are using fair trade to help the world's poor, missionaries, and shoppers. (Nov. 12, 2003)
Good to Great's Leadership Model Looks Familiar to Christians | The author of the bestselling business book says his findings on successful leaders led him to the New Testament. (March 14, 2003)
The Profit of God | Finding the Christian path in business. (Jan. 27, 2003)
Bad Company Corrupts | Michael Novak, theological champion of the free market, reflects on what recent business scandals mean for church and state. (Jan. 27, 2003)
The Wages of Secularism | New laws won't prevent another Enron. (June 04, 2002)
When Business Aims for Miracles | Minneapolis-St. Paul business professionals are some of the inner city's most effective "social entrepreneurs." (May 25, 2001)

CT's annual Best Christian Workplaces surveys Christian business employees and ranks them. Our winners list for 2005, 2004, and 2003 is available online.

Our Money & Business page has more articles at the intersection of faith and work.