How to be a Good Leader

St Benedict didn’t actually write anything with such a title, but his two chapters on the abbot provide some excellent guidelines — and not just for monastics. At a time when we are experiencing something of a crisis of leadership in the Western world, it’s good to think about what leadership is, how it acts in the service of others, the constraints under which it must operate and the co-operation it must have from those who are led if it is to achieve anything of value. The feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, about whom I have written often in the past, provides us with an opportunity to reflect anew on the relationship between authority and obedience, power and service; and by one of those neat co-incidences only heaven and the calendar can arrange, this morning we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot with its portrait of a wise and kindly leader whose daunting task it is to be ‘the representative of Christ in the monastery’. (RB 2.2)

Most people know that Cluny was the mother-house of what was, in effect, the first religious order in the Church, eventually numbering over 2,000 houses, including several in England. Many also know that there were so many monks at Cluny itself that they had to be divided into separate choirs, constantly singing the praises of God in a laus perennis. Inevitably, expansion created problems and by the time of the French Revolution, the Cluniacs were so identified with the Ancien Régime that they were ripe for suppression. If one goes to Cluny today one can see little of the abbey remains for most of it was demolished in 1810 and the stone carted away. It is not the buildings that made Cluny great, however, but the people.

Earlier, on Twitter, I tried to give something of the personalities and achievements of four of the abbots of Cluny. Listed in date order these are:

Maiolus was both librarian and cellarer (bursar) before becoming abbot of Cluny. He refused to become pope when Otto II wanted him to do so but concentrated on making his community observant and learned. #scholarship

Odilo was abbot of Cluny for 55 years. He was a peace-maker, introducing the notion of truce from Fridays to Mondays and in Advent and Lent. From 1028-1033 he had most of Cluny’s treasures melted down to relieve the poor. #generosity

Hugh was abbot of Cluny for 60 years, during which time the number of houses under him increased from c. 60 to c. 2000,., He was an influential mediator and papal diplomat but still took his regular turn as monastic cook. #humility

Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny for 25 years, argued against persecution of the Jewish people, defended Abelard, had the Quran translated into Latin so that Islam could be studied from its sources, and refused to have anything to do with the Second Crusade. #integrity

As expected, Peter the Venerable has attracted most attention because his concerns resonate with contemporary values, but I have a suspicion many monks and nuns will be more drawn to Hugh. Noreen Hunt paints an unforgettable picture of him cooking beans in the monastery kitchen, and kitchen duty or its equivalent tends to loom larger in our lives than international diplomacy or monastic empire building. I think that is a useful clue to the nature of genuine leadership. It is with those who are led. It shares our difficulties and aspirations even as it tries to guide us. In the case of the monastic leader, the path to be trodden is that of holiness and zeal. Benedict singles out for special care the teaching of the abbot and his responsibility for the way in which the community acts, or fails to act, on his words. It follows that his teaching must be clear, consistent and entirely in accordance with the gospel, marked with compassion, yes, but also firm about what is unacceptable.

That Cluny lasted so long and produced so many saints is testimony to the leadership and zeal of its abbots and the desire of the community to become holy or, as we might say today, the best it could. There were consequences for society in general, too, many of them helpful, like the efforts to reduce war and violence. I wonder how today’s secular leadership measures up to that in its service of the common good, its exercise of authority and its use of power. Ideas, anyone?


10 thoughts on “How to be a Good Leader”

  1. As usual, dear Sister Catherine, your post makes me both respond wth joy at the wisdom and clarity and hope you bring to this subject and weep at the ways in which we and the world fail to love and live in God’s way.

  2. Most religious have a vocation, most political leaders have ambition.Jesus gave us a simple aid to this, with a coin.

    • Religious leaders can have ambition, and I’d say that, for politicians, being a politician is their vocation. In both cases, it is what we do in response to our vocation that matters. Would you agree?

  3. I read the prelude yesterday, on Twitter, your thumbnail sketches on Odilo, Hugh, Peter and Maiolus, and was delighted this morning to read your blog in full, particularly about leaders being firm on what is unacceptable. These days we seem to live in the new dark ages where the perfectly normal are branded bigots. That last comment is not original, but it is how I feel.

    • Thank you. I think I understand what you mean, though I’d need to add that most of us (me, for example) are happier when our leaders are being firm with other people rather than ourselves! St Benedict says that the abbot should strive to be more loved than feared and, in another place, should set mercy above judgement. They are two ideas that need careful thinking about. On the one hand, no currying favour by being without any principles at all; on the other, no undue severity. Pity those who have to try to get it right all the time and know they fail nearly always.

  4. Once again, thanking you for rounding out our understanding and enabling our pilgrimage towards a common future shared in God’s love for us.

  5. It’s interesting that you should ask at the end in regard to “use of power” because my instinct is to say that without God the secular world can do whatever and it will ultimately fail.
    We sort of hope that in the sincerity of their own hearts they find and know God and all efforts that are genuine acts of love won’t be wasted as such, God will do good and assist on the way to harmony and give leaders opportunities for making choices with humility and wisdom but God’s power is only found through Christ.
    So as in marriage without God or efforts to try and bring harmony to society without Him there will always be confusion and power struggle especially as so much of God’s justice is seen in things which seem weak and unjust like mercy and forgiveness… I could go on but it’s long and I have to get more prayer in before my 7am roar group call. God bless.

  6. I was a teacher for 40 years and you can say much the same about Headteachers. In my experience it was about respect and trust. I felt secure when I respected my Headteacher and felt (s)he cared about the school community as individuals. I needed to believe that they had the knowledge and intelligence to make, communicate and implement wise decisions. I lost respect in those who didn’t keep us informed and left us wondering why they were making decisions. The difference seemed to come down to personality as I had no idea whether they had any religious beliefs.

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