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Meaningful Conversations: Talking Virtuous Leadership with Jonathan Reckford

February 2023

Meaningful Conversations: Talking Virtuous Leadership with Jonathan Reckford

Meaningful Conversations: Talking Virtuous Leadership with Jonathan Reckford

Last month, Jackson Spalding welcomed our teams and clients into our Atlanta office for the third installment of our community-driven leadership series, Meaningful Conversations: A Series on Leadership. JS partner Randall Kirsch spoke with friend and Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford on various topics of character, faith, changing the framing question, kindness and respect. 

An Unlikely Career Path 

Jonathan Reckford has led Habitat for Humanity for two decades but has not always worked in the nonprofit sector. Jonathan graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the intention to attend law school and pursue a career in politics. From investment banking with Goldman Sachs to coaching the Korean national rowing team, Jonathan has experienced it all.  

With a passion for serving others, Jonathan’s strategy was to learn in the private sector and eventually take those skills into the public sector. After receiving a master’s degree in business administration and a certificate in nonprofit management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Jonathan worked for a variety of companies including Marriott, Best Buy Circuit City and the Walt Disney Company. 

Throughout his career, Jonathan kept being pulled in another direction by his faith. He would ask two important questions: “What are you going to do that will be useful?” and “What is more important: your character or your career?” Jonathan found the answers to his questions and moved to a small town in Minnesota to become an executive pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church.

Changing the Framing Question 

Since Jonathan joined Habitat for Humanity in 2008, the nonprofit experienced nonlinear exponential growth. The small startup in South Georgia grew into a leading global nonprofit across all 50 states in the U.S. and over 70 countries.  

“To achieve explosive growth, our team was able to embrace the uncomfortable and develop tolerance to change,” said Jonathan. “The status quo is unacceptable.” 

The nonprofit’s goal was to answer the question “How do we reduce the number of people facing insecure housing?” To grow as an organization, they had to change the framing of their question. Instead, Jonathan and his team began asking, “What would it take to reduce the housing deficit in every region we serve?”  

Reframing their question allowed the nonprofit to become more creative and strategic in their thinking and decision making. Habitat for Humanity began to focus more on advocacy, government policy making, value chain, housing improvement loans and sustainable building materials. 

Virtues in the Workplace 

In his book, Our Better Angels: Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life and the World, Jonathan describes “how people from all walks of life work together” through the seven virtues of kindness, community, empowerment, joy, respect, generosity and service. 

Kindness in a business setting is hard to emulate. Most times, industry leaders choose to be clear rather than kind, but Jonathan argues that it is not an ultimatum. As a leader, you can give feedback because you want someone to succeed. You can care for, value and love those that you work with.  

Respect in a business setting is also one virtue that society has made difficult to achieve. In Jonathan’s words, “No one can live in dignity until everyone lives in dignity.” Each and every person deserves respect and has something to give and something to gain.  

The most productive group of individuals are those that come to the table as themselves. In a world where faith can be polarizing, Habitat for Humanity, a Christian nonprofit, is inclusive because of its faith, not despite it.