When we first met Phyllis Hendry she greeted us at Lead Like Jesus headquarters in Augusta, Georgia, and welcomed us in as if we were family. Her voice is tender and her words are laced together with a southern accent that is almost musical.
What’s most ironic is that her graciousness in making you feel like you’re the most important person in the room veils the fact that she is a frequent world traveler, accomplished writer, inspirational public speaker and influential CEO of the Lead Like Jesus organization.
From a very young age, Phyllis knew that doing His work was good work to do. As the daughter of a bi-vocational pastor—during the week he was a construction supervisor, and on the weekends he focused on growing a small mission church—Phyllis learned at a very early age about foundations, building things, and more importantly, building relationships.
“On Saturday, we would visit people in the community to invite them to join our church. I remember one particular gentleman who God used to teach me about relationships.” Phyllis said as she recalled a crotchety old man who had no interest whatsoever in going to church.
“Every week, we would go and sit on his front porch and he would give me a grape Nehi. I would listen as my dad and this older gentleman talked. They talked about fishing, business and whatever this gentleman wanted to talk about. That was our regular Saturday visit and I never heard my dad ask this gentleman to come to church again.”
About a year and a half later, as Phyllis was playing piano at the Sunday church service, she looked up and saw tears in her father’s eyes as this gentleman walked through the door.
“It still makes me cry to think that by investing so keenly in him and building a relationship with this older gentleman, he came to know the Lord that day. But it wasn’t just in that day. It was all those Saturdays before.”
Today, as CEO of Lead Like Jesus, an organization whose mission is to glorify God by inspiring and equipping people to lead like Jesus, Phyllis stands on that great foundation for her life. “On that day, I came to understand that if we are going to make a difference in people’s lives, we must take time and invest in relationships.”
The most important relationship for Phyllis is with her Heavenly Father. “When I was eight years old, I had the opportunity to attend summer camp if I memorized 300 Bible verses. I was willing to do whatever it took to be able to spend a week at camp and go swimming, play tennis, sit by the campfire and eat s’mores.”
With the prayers and assistance of her father, Phyllis learned those 300 Bible verses, but more importantly had the seeds of God’s Word planted in her heart. At the time, it was all about earning a week at camp. But looking back, Phyllis acknowledges, “I didn’t know what my reward was. What I realized later in my life is what I had learned in Isaiah 43; ‘God had called me by name and that I was His’.”
The lessons she learned from the Scripture that she memorized as an 8-year old are at her core and the foundation that guides her and gives her strength. “At 8 years old, I gave as much of myself as I understood of myself, to as much of God as I understood,” she said. “It was clear to me that was my calling and what I was to do in my life. I didn’t know how that would look. Certainly, serving at Lead Like Jesus was nowhere in my mind or my heart in those days, but it was in God’s eye and God’s heart.”
A self-described “just-in-time learner,” Phyllis began her career in banking at a time when women were just beginning to make their way in the corporate world. Recognizing the benefit of relationships to her career, Phyllis decided to meet people and build relationships with those she thought were good models for her career. Then a transformation occurred.
“I ended up at breakfast next to someone who wasn’t one of the people that I wanted to meet that day. But that person poured so much into my life. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, the Lord set up this appointment!’ Since that time, I have chosen to stand wherever the Lord puts me and develop a relationship with whomever He puts in my path.” This change gave her a totally different perspective on every person she would meet. “I transitioned my thinking from ‘Let me get close to certain people,’ to ‘Let Him move me where He wants me.’ I’m still doing that. I have consistently had wonderful mentors and models and am convinced that God chose them for me.”
Phyllis acknowledges that it is not easy for a “Type A” person to give up control. “I make lists. I love crossing things off my list so much that if I do something that wasn’t on my list, I write it down so I can mark it off. Like most people, I like being in charge!”
Through her life’s circumstances, Phyllis realized that she is really not in charge. “I had my life so planned out. My husband and I were going to grow old together, have grandchildren and travel. It was a good plan!”
Everything changed in 1990 when her husband had a heart attack. As she rode to the hospital in the ambulance with him, a Bible verse she had learned as an 8-year old was playing over and over in her head like a recorder. “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 In the waiting room, every time she thought of something else, that verse would play again in her head. Finally, the doctor came out and said, “I’m so sorry. Sometimes the first sign of heart disease is fatal.”
Phyllis turned to God and said, “Father, you told me that there’s a plan and a hope and a future. And this doesn’t feel like anything I want a part of.” Immediately, Proverbs 3 came into her mind. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and he will make your paths straight.” She said out loud “It is about trusting You!”
Reflecting on that difficult time in her life, Phyllis said, “I learned, and I’m reminded again daily, that it is about trusting the plan that He has for us. Many years have passed since those seeds were planted in my heart, but they continue to rise up. I love the way the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to impact us when we’ve put it in a place where it can be retrieved.”
After several years, Phyllis remarried, and for the next almost 19 years she and her second husband blended their families—her son and daughter with his two sons. They came together to love each other very much. Then, in July 2011, they were shocked to learn that her husband, a big, strong healthy guy who did not smoke, had lung cancer.
She said, “My husband was extremely courageous as he fought this battle with cancer daily. He had an incredible attitude through radiation and chemotherapy. But her husband passed away, March 10, 2012. And then his mother died in July, and his father died in December. Once again, having the seeds of His Word planted in her heart and knowing how to trust God, she was able to stand on that faith. What else could she do?
“This story is not about surviving the loss of two husbands. It is about God’s faithfulness. My family, career, all of my life has been the story of God’s faithfulness. I learned at 8 years old that He would never leave me nor forsake me, and I count on it.”
At Lead Like Jesus, the organization where Phyllis has served for over 10 years, the teachings reflect the foundation of Scripture that she learned as an 8-year old. Lead Like Jesus believes:
- Jesus is the greatest leadership role model of all time. If we are to lead like Him, we must also live in the power and presence of the Father.
- Leadership happens anytime you influence the thinking, behavior, or development of another. This applies to our organizational and life roles.
- Effective leadership begins on the inside, starting with the heart. The way to ensure a healthy heart is to be deeply connected with the Father.
- Servant leadership is the only approach to leadership that Jesus ever validated for his followers. True servant leadership happens when a person receives all they need from the Father, and their hearts overflow in service to others.
Lead Like Jesus teaches people to lead like Jesus through workshops, materials, online systems, and events. By training and supporting strategic relationships and a worldwide facilitator network and the production of materials and programs, Lead Like Jesus shares its mission to integrate Jesus into the lives and leadership of as many people as possible. Each of the materials and programs focuses on developing and aligning the heart, head, hand and habits of the leader. “We go deep into the heart and look at the barriers to a healthy heart – a heart that leads like Jesus.”
“The head or thinking section focuses on vision and implementation. We explore what it looks like to be a vision–caster as a leader and to implement that vision by turning the organizational pyramid upside down and actually serving the people who are living out that vision.”
“In the hand section, we emphasize the behaviors. If your heart has been impacted and your thinking has been changed, your behavior will be different to the people around you. What would it look like to lead like Jesus?”
“In the last section, we talk about habits. The whole foundation of our life is that connection to the Father. By knowing who you are in Him, you will have a changed heart, thinking that is other-centered and behavior that reflects this changed heart and thinking.”
Under her capable leadership since 2002, Lead Like Jesus has had global impact. The organization reaches into 37 countries, and its books and program materials have been translated into as many as 11 languages.
But Phyllis doesn’t measure success in terms of the numbers alone.
"When you do lead like Jesus, you are reflecting Jesus to others and as Oswald Chambers said ‘hopefully as we reflect Jesus we will make others thirsty to know Him’."Phyllis Hendry
On a personal level, she recognizes just how important this is. “Perhaps because I have experienced how fragile life can be, I have thought a great deal about what I want to pass on to my children, grandchildren and others —not financially, but a deep abiding faith that assures we can trust God no matter what and that propels us to live, love and lead in such a way that lives will be impacted for Jesus. I am so grateful for God’s faithfulness. It is so amazing that He would pass this down generation after generation.”
“That is the real story of what we do at Lead Like Jesus. We develop leaders who lead as Jesus led, and I pray, serve as Jesus served so that the world will come to know Him.”