Being a Leader, Not a Boss: RB 2

For many years now the Rule of St Benedict has been plundered for all kinds of purposes for which it was never intended, including — and I quote from the title of a book on our shelves — business success. Sometimes I almost despair. Yes, one can take many good ideas from the Rule about leadership, communal living, mutual service and so forth, but strip the less popular elements from the mix —  the ceaseless round of prayer and observance, single chastity, obedience — and one takes much of the heart from the Rule. It was written for monastics, people with a lifelong commitment to seeking God in community under a superior. It is worth pausing for a moment to think what that means, especially in relation to the chapter of the Rule we begin re-reading today, The Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be.

Benedict was not writing about a temporary situation, one the individual could shrug off at will. He says quite clearly that the abbot ‘is believed to represent Christ in the monastery’ (RB 2.2) Nothing could make it plainer that, for him, authority and obedience are truly religious concepts, intimately connected with the search for God and marked by a seriousness and durability of purpose we cannot ignore. It matters who and what the abbot is because, in an important sense, he mediates Christ to the community. That requires faith and spiritual vision on the part of both abbot and community, for without it we are left with a merely mechanical interpretation of what it is to head the community/obey the superior. We end up with a boss and being bossed about rather than with a leader and being led.

The first requirement of the abbot is that he should ‘always be mindful of what he is called and act as a superior should.’ (RB 2.1) That ‘always’, semper, is significant. There is no time off for the abbot, not a single moment when he can relax his charge, can forget, however briefly, what he has been called to be and do. It is enough to make one shake in one’s socks! Then, just when one might expect Benedict to enlarge on the abbot’s powers, one finds a list of duties or restrictions laid upon him: he must not teach or ordain anything that would conflict with the law of the Lord (RB2.4); he must remember that there will be an examination of his own teaching as well as of his disciples’ obedience (RB 2.6); he must bear the blame for any lack of profit the Father of the household may discover in his sheep (RB 2.7). Only then are there a few words of comfort for the abbot. He will be acquitted on Judgment Day if he has ‘lavished every care on a restive and disobedient flock and taken pains to heal its unwholesome ways.’ (RB2.9) Even when he is being comforted, it seems, the abbot is to be reminded of how arduous a task he has undertaken and warned that he must be tireless in his efforts.

These first sentences of the first chapter on the abbot (Benedict has another later on) are often glossed over by those who use the Rule for courses in management theory. They are replaced by ‘inspirational’ remarks about the qualities a leader should have and the value of team-work. There is nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t exactly Benedictine. Everything in the Rule, like everything in the monastery, is meant to lead us to God. To begin, as Benedict does, with a sense of the spiritual significance of the abbatial role, the limitations inherent in its exercise, the context in which all actions are to be judged, is to demonstrate a radically different idea of what leadership is and how it should operate from that which we see all around us. There is no real distinction between the office and the person. For those called to serve in that way, the prospect is daunting, and it is no wonder that many fail or are, at best, mediocre. Mediocrity has always been the bane of monastic life and can lead to many abuses, not least the abuse of power. Perhaps today we could pray for all who hold leadership postions, not just in monasteries but in the world more generally. They certainly need prayer if they are not to give way to the temptations power puts in their way.


1 thought on “Being a Leader, Not a Boss: RB 2”

  1. One of the things about leadership in the military is to take it as one of Service to those who you lead. You don’t just lead them in battle, but you also have a responsibility for their pastoral care, a responsibility to have the integrity to ensure that all are treated equally well and perhaps most importantly, to build that care across the unit to make it a cohesive whole for whatever task is to be given it. Every individual owes respect to each other and if one person isn’t coming up to the mark, to encourage them to work with the whole team to do and to be their very best. This goes as far as knowing them well, knowing their families well and being approachable so that individuals who have an issue will have the confidence to aproach you for help, instead of bottling it up. Building that confidence takes time spent together in training, in social conditions and allowing for individual physical, spiritual or religious needs. Pastoral Care of those under your command is taken very seriously and there are support mechanism available for advice and guidance with dealing with things outside one individual’s expertise. Knowing when to ask for help is as much a key part of the role as knowing when you can deal with it yourself.

    In my last few years in this role, I also had responsiblity for civilian staff. It takes additional skills in human resources and people management to approach this type of management. Civilians in support of the Armed forces and not soldier – they can’t be ordered or bossed about. Their feelings and personal circumtances deserve as much attention as you give to the military personnel under your command. For me, this was simple. By showing respect for them. By praising their performance and by not being afraid to delegate to them, I was enabled and empowered to get on with my primary role(s).

    Nowadays terms such as ‘welfare’ are used to cover the whole area of caring for your workforce. I note that the term Pastoral Care (which for me has a whole range of extra connotations) is increasingly used for this type of work. And I draw from the experience of caring for both military and civilian personal a great joy in working with all people by building relationships of confidence and mutual trust and respect, which seems to me to be similar, not exactly alike the Abbott, but perhapss with similar goals in mind. Being Christlike as a Disciple of Christ being first on my list.

    For me, who in my final years of s

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