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The Founder: A Disturbing Case Study in Leadership

Posted on July 12th, 2017

The McDonald’s leadership model was talked about so much in the evangelical leadership culture in which I was nurtured that I was stunned watching the movie The Founder. The movie tells the story of Ray Kroc and the history of McDonald’s – a company now worth over $100 billion with 36,899 stores in 120 countries. McDonald’s, I was told repeatedly, offered a model to grow our churches – simple, scalable, clearly branded, and entrepreneurial.


Sadly, we never talked about the shadow side of McDonald’s history. The Founder does. As I watched the movie, I was reminded of the ancient proverb quoted by Os Guiness many years ago: if you are going to dine with the devil, you better have a long spoon.

The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc who meets Mac and Dick McDonald as they are running a successful burger operation in 1950s Southern California. He sees the franchise potential and maneuvers himself into a position to create a billion-dollar empire. Kroc gets control of the company from the McDonald brothers, and the rights to their name, for $2.7 million. He makes a handshake agreement for future royalties that he never honors — valued at $15 million a year by 1977 and as high as $305 million a year by 2012. And then elevates himself to be the founder of McDonalds. In the process, Kroc destroys his first marriage (actually two marriages) until settling into a third one with Joan Kroc. After his death, she makes the largest gift ever given to a charity, donating over $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army.

Any presentation of McDonald’s as a model for the church needs to present the full picture and ask a few key biblical questions along the way:

  1. Are we doing God’s will His way? We can be growing our ministries and organizations and yet failing. Jesus resisted this temptation of the devil in the desert. So must we.
  2. Are we truly facing our shadows as leaders? This is a formidable task. The consequences of ignoring our shadows are devastating. We all need honest, mature friends, spiritual directors and wise mentors.
  3. Are we honoring the integrity of our marriages and singleness as leaders? The apostle Paul made the quality of our marriages an indispensable requirement for leadership. He knew the ability to apply Scripture in our marriages, or singleness, is foundational to everything we do.
  4. Are we walking in truth? Is our “yes” a true “yes” and our “no” a true “no” (Matthew 5:37)? Jesus says our words are to be like a signed legal document without exaggerations or embellishments. When we say we are going to do something, we actually do it.

We may drink in a few good leadership lessons from a successful, secular corporation like McDonald’s. But if we do, we had better make sure we have a long spoon.

Pete Scazzero

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