By Dr. Dan Reinhardt

In October 2010, 551 ducks died in the tailing ponds of Syncrude oilsands in northern Alberta. “Pictures of dead and dying birds flashed around the world and Syncrude was cast by its critics as an environmental pariah,” reported the National Post.  How did a company respectful of its workers and the environment forever tarnish the reputation of Alberta oil sands? Recently my wife and I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with a retired Syncrude team leader, a guest of our bed-and-breakfast.  Here’s the rest of the story…

Syncrude ducks


He spoke admirably of Syncrude COO, James Carter. James was an amazing leader. Every Friday he would walk through the machine shop, chatting with mechanics and machinists about their jobs.  James knew them by name and could speak knowledgeably about their projects.  He asked for input on problem solving. James created a culture of collaboration between management and workers.  Everyone was treated with respect; there was no need for a union.

Decisions were made by the leadership team on the ground in Fort McMurray.  Leaders were local people who understood their country and the environment. They collaborated with seven different companies to create a very profitable oil company. But everything changed when they were bought out by Exxon.

“It all came down to making money,” said the team leader. The culture shifted from collaboration to top-down, command-and-control.  Exxon fired the top two levels of Syncrude management and began to issue edicts from New York. “We’ll show you how to make money,” was the implicit message.

The result?

  • Two people died in accidents, marring a 28 year safety record.
  • Despite the urging of local leaders, New York executives refused to turn on the heaters as winter approached. The plant froze for two weeks, resulting in multiple millions lost in revenue and repair.
  • Local leaders with First Nations background warned Exxon to turn on the bird deterrent systems for an early migration. Exxon refused, stating it was a waste of money.  551 birds died, creating an international media fiasco.  Alberta continues to face fierce environmental opposition because of this.


We heard story after story of the fallout of top-down, command-and-control leadership, culminating in our guest’s resignation from the company.  They begged him to stay, offering substantial financial incentives.  But money cannot hold key leaders when their hearts have lost hope.  “I simply could not continue working in that toxic environment,” he said.  After doing the job he loved for over 30 years, he left for good. And Exxon lost one of its best team leaders.

Is the purpose of a business to make as much money as possible? Or is it to serve leaders, workers and the community, while making a profit? Jesus described these two mind-sets 2000 years ago, as recorded in Matthew 20:25-27:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

Top-down leadership is dirty – in any industry, organization or ministry. It destroys relationships with self, others, God and creation.

Servant leadership is not only more healthy and effective, it’s more sustainable and profitable. Servant leaders like James Carter engage and empower workers, create solutions, prevent problems, strengthen organizations, enrich communities and build nations. Servant leaders work from clearly defined values – not from greed or fear.

It’s interesting that the business world is just beginning to catch on to the benefits of servant leadership. But it’s counter-intuitive for leaders to see themselves as servants. Servant leadership requires a shift in how the leader sees the world, themselves, God and others. The CREST journey helps leaders make that shift. Click here to join a CREST cohort near you.