How to Be a Good Leader

We usually think about SS Maurus and Placid in terms of discipleship and obedience. In previous years I have commented on the way in which they are presented as near- perfect and the problem that poses for those of us who are imperfect (see here and here). But we live in a world where being a disciple, a follower, isn’t much favoured. We all want to be leaders now. Even applications to join the monastery often read like a pitch to become CEO of a major corporation! I think it is time, therefore, to take the story of Maurus and Placid as told in book II of Gregory’s Dialogues and see what it tells us about leadership rather than discipleship.

Gregory tells us Placid went to fetch water from the lake. Placid fell in but Benedict, being made aware of the situation by God’s grace, sent Maurus to rescue the youngster. Maurus, having received the abbot’s blessing, walked upon the water and rescued Placid. Later, St Benedict attributed the miracle to Maurus’ obedience; Maurus attributed it to St Benedict. It was Placid who settled the matter: ‘When you pulled me out of the water,’ he said,’ I saw over my head Father Abbot’s hood, and I saw that it was he who pulled me from the water.’

The first thing to note is that this is hagiography, not history. It expresses a spiritual truth: the value of obedience in conforming us to Christ. But there is an interesting dynamic at work. Both Maurus and Placid were unhesitatingly obedient to their abbot. Were they simpletons, doing what they were told because they hadn’t the brains or individuality to think for themselves? Was Benedict an overbearing taskmaster whom they feared to disobey, or a charismatic looney of the kind we see in some cults, demanding that his followers do silly or dangerous things? I think the answer is neither. Both Maurus and Placid obeyed Benedict because they trusted him.

Trust tends to get a bad press these days. How many people feel they can trust anyone? Distrust has become our default position. It affects family life; business life; Church life. Leaders may be ‘thrusting’ ‘dynamic’ and all the other buzz words we find bandied around, but are they trustworthy?

The quality which set Benedict apart as a leader was precisely that: trustworthiness. As presented by Gregory in the Dialogues, and even more as we see him in his Rule, Benedict comes across as a true man of God, one who ‘lived as he wrote’; who prayed, worked, served and did not shirk responsibility. He was painfully aware that one day he would have to answer to God for the souls of all those committed to his care, including, in some measure, those who had gone astray. That sense of responsibility affected every decision concerning those over whom he had any authority. It made people trust him, knowing they could rely on him. That is, or should be, true of every religious leader today. I would suggest it should also be true, mutatis mutandis, of every good leader, whatever their sphere.

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3 thoughts on “How to Be a Good Leader”

  1. I think that you’ve hit on the essential truth of leadership, i.e. the ability to instill trust in your leadership from those who you are appointed to lead.

    Coming from a background of the military, where unquestioning obedience used to be the norm, and an autocratic leadership style could be enforced by stringent penalties for failure, obedience can become inherently built in? But if the one giving the orders doesn’t have some human elements such as compassion, understanding and consideration, than they are on to a hiding to nothing. They also need to trust those that they lead to think for themselves, to contribute to the debate in terms of tasks and missions and to be effective leaders themselves. A million miles away from that style of leadership apparent when I joined in the sixties.

    Christian leadership seems to me to be very much a matter of listening to both God and to others to ensure that you as a leader are in a position to either persuade or to be persuaded about how the mission and pastoral care in your congregation or community can be met in accordance with God’s law, not necessarily secular law.

    In the case you quote, the obedience of Maurus and Placid to Benedict’s suggestion allowed the saving of a life, obedience to God might be harder, because his physical presence can only be represented to us through words and images, but something about Jesus’ words of “Blessed are those who do not see – yet believe” comes into it. Faith and trust the two key elements of it.

  2. Jesus said I am amongst you as one who serves. True leadership involves humility, love and the desire to serve others . It does not ‘Lord it’over others. Seeing these qualities in another naturally leads to trust. St Benedict clearly had it is spades full 🙂

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