As the plane prepared to land in Hawaii, Ed Kobel found himself in tears. ¶ He had just finished Radical, a book by David Platt that addresses the relationship between Christian principles and modern-day America. ¶ Among other issues, the book details how 23,000 people die every day of starvation. ¶ Kobel, the president and chief operating officer of DeBartolo Development, was so moved the flight attendant asked if there was something wrong. ¶ "I told her, 'No, I just read a book and it got my heart,' " Kobel recalled. "I started praying and I said, 'Lord, I've never had a heart for food ministry. If this is something you want me to get involved with, show me.' " ¶ When the plane landed, Kobel turned on his BlackBerry and the first of the 50 emails he had received was from a friend asking if he was willing to meet with someone who runs the food ministry Feeding Children Everywhere. ¶ Three weeks later, Kobel joined employees and supporters and packed 250,000 meals to give to the poor. ¶ Since that event, Kobel's company has teamed up with others to produce 5 million meals for hungry children. ¶ The story illustrates one of the Christian principles emphasized by Impact Tampa Bay's Lifework Leadership program. ¶ Kobel helped bring the nine-month program to Tampa five years ago. Built on biblical teachings, the program gives participants a blueprint to guide their businesses using what he calls God's model for leadership. ¶ Kobel shared with Times columnist Ernest Hooper why he thinks the program, which now has 250 alumni, will continue to grow and help businesses thrive.
Using your business to impact the community is one of the principles stressed in Lifework Leadership. Has your business reaped direct benefits from your involvement with the food ministry?
I cannot tell you I met a guy in my business group because of that. What I can tell you is that the Bible is very clear when the Lord tells us take care of the widows, take care of the children and feed the poor. The Bible is also really clear when it says if you take up the cross of Christ and you participate in his work, blessings occur. I don't want to suggest a prosperity theology at all, but I would tell you that our business has grown exponentially. We don't do it for that, it's just a natural offshoot of God's blessing on our business and I think you would hear a lot of that from our alumni.
Some people might say that biblical principles don't mesh with the business world, which they see as cutthroat and ruthless.
I think there are some people outside of business who see businesses that way. I can think of a few people that act out the way you just described and a not a lot of them succeed. Word gets out. … Whether you're a Fortune 100 company or a company the size of DeBartolo, these practices are coming from the Creator himself; they're going to work. I don't mean they guarantee you success, but you're not going to get in trouble. We have so many positive stories from our alumni, whether it's a change in how they deal with their families, how they became leaders in their church, how they think of their businesses or how they've used their businesses to impact the community.
How did you end up creating Impact Tampa Bay and bringing Lifework Leadership to town?
I was asked to chair the Tampa Bay Festival with Luis Palau in 2004 right after we moved here. As we organized all of that, it became apparent to me that the amount of effort we were putting into organizing it. … I prayed about it, the Lord really led me to say, "All of this human resource you're pulling together, you've got to do something with that." Right after I started praying that, my friend Wayne Huizenga Jr. called and said, "I've got this leadership program that my wife, Fonda, and I are really excited about. Why don't you come to Orlando and see a (two-day) presentation on it?" I said, "Absolutely." My wife, Becky, and I asked five other couples from Tampa who were pretty much on our executive committee for the festival to go to Orlando to hear the Huizengas present this Lifework Leadership model.
What did you learn at the session in Orlando?
There were many CEO leaders who spoke and talked about the impact of Lifework Leadership and what had it meant to them. At the end of the presentation, we got our little group of couples from Tampa together and I said, "Well, let's take some time to think and pray about this and we can reconvene in a week." Every couple said, "No, we're going to take this to Tampa." So we're now in our fifth year here in Tampa and we've attracted some talented folks. We've got about 250 alumni and 50 people in this year's class and it's been amazing. I've been privileged to see the impact that it's had on people's lives. It's been remarkable.
What are two or three primary principles that guide the program?
I don't know if I can limit it to two or three. You take the context of the Bible and each of the (nine) sessions has a different topic, like integrity or compassion. Within each session, we have what we call the Jesus journey and we talk about how did Jesus use this particular thing, how did he do compassion. We look at biblical references and we usually have two different case studies, one from a local business person and generally a national person. It's a half-day session and we break into small groups and discuss what's going on. All woven through each session is how are you going to take this and apply it to your life. We've had people who have been in other leadership programs who say this gets a little deeper and takes people to a different level.
Does it attract only people who are devout, or has it, in some cases, drawn in folks who needed an infusion of faith?
If you're walking with Christ, if you have your salvation, it's pretty helpful. It puts everything in context. If you're walking outside of that, and we've had a few people like that go through it, it's turned their world upside down in a positive way. We certainly don't turn anybody away, one way or the other.
How much does it help to know and meet others trying to use Christian principles in the business world?
We survey after each class, and consistently our overriding proposition is the connectivity and the sharing and the intimacy that comes out of the group. It's helpful. We all struggle whether we're walking with God or not. I think that's a very powerful tool. Iron sharpens iron.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.