A Lack of Leadership?

Like everyone else, we are praying that President Trump and his wife make a rapid recovery from COVID-19. The way in which some are expressing death-wishes for them is completely unacceptable for any person of goodwill, whatever their religious or political beliefs. That said, the bemusement of many commentators is readily understandable. There seem to be such a lot of contradictions and uncertainties bubbling to the surface. We have never been here before, and no one is really in a position to predict the outcome. There is a great deal of anxiety, both inside and outside the U.S.A. , but I wonder whether the President’s illness and the questions surrounding a possible transfer of power don’t confirm what many have been maintaining for some time: that America’s claim to be ‘leader of the free world’ no longer holds good because there has been a retreat from leadership in many areas. What is true of the U.S.A. is true of other countries and institutions, including the Church. There is a discernible lack of leadership that is very concerning.

I haven’t any magic remedies to propose, but this morning I found myself thinking about Bl. Columba Marmion who, as abbot of Maredsous, exercised a special kind of Benedictine leadership and, incidentally, wrote very powerfully about the monastic vocation. Benedictine leadership isn’t democratic, but it isn’t dictatorial, either. It is concerned for the good of all, prepared to take unpopular decisions, but always ready to listen, take counsel, reflect. It is, or should be, selfless. Today’s secular leaders tend to cultivate their image assiduously and appear to be always ready with a sound-byte. Perhaps that is why we seem to have a leadership vacuum in many areas or, at any rate, leadership which is often hesitant or confused. Perhaps if we could reassure our leaders that they do not have to have an opinion on everything, they might be able to give more time to thinking matters through.

You notice I have moved from the role of leaders to our own role. We can easily forget that leaders are drawn from our ranks and that we have a duty to enable them to be leaders. That means giving encouragement, scrutinizing, calling to account if need be, allowing them to lead but not allowing them to mislead. In many ways, being led is just as difficult as leading. Something to ponder and pray about, I suggest, as we face the future together.


15 thoughts on “A Lack of Leadership?”

  1. The sense that everyone has to have an opinion on everything is extremely misleading, I think. People tend to cobble them together on the hoof, as it were, and find they have ultimately gone up a blind alley. Then the options are quite narrow, often based on some dishonest bit of reasoning. What is wrong in saying, when asked for your opinion, Sorry, I don‘t know?

  2. I agree. Could it also be argued that, in a sense, we’re all leaders?
    For, if we take subsidiarity seriously, shouldn’t everything we do, even the smallest things, be done with excellence in mind, and if it is, then we are likely to be exemplars (leaders) to whom people can look for the ‘paradigm’ of what it means to perform a task or activity, and learn from them? Parents, for example?

    In this sense, I know I get frustrated when I hear people ‘waiting for their leaders’ (priest) to act, or will not act without their stamp of approval, as if they have no responsibility or agency without it (and those who refuse to participate or criticise if a person acts within their jurisdiction as a lay person, yet hasn’t that stamp of approval of the ‘leader’)…

  3. I heard a podcast with Lawrence Fox this morning in which he said that he had set his twitter feed to clear old posts every three months. How many times do we think I shouldn’t have said or written that? Old statements are often used in debates in the House of Commons to embarass the other side, not to show that you have since learned from others or indeed changed your mind.
    My father used to advise that it was important to be able to take decisions and act decisively, but if you found it to be the wrong decision, to be able to change your mind and act accordingly. So I do hope that people in authority are able to make the best decisions on our behalf and are able to change their minds if the situation or the evidence changes.

  4. The word Leadership means different things to different contexts.
    In the Army, we were trained to lead from our early days as a recruit through our career from junior to commission and senior leadership. What leadership means was bound in subtexts of thoughtfulness, intelligence, knowledge, care, compassion, empathy as well as determination. charisma and integrity and the ability to inspire others to follow. If we found a leader wanting in any of those areas’ we would be reluctant to follow that leader, albeit through discipline and learned obedience, would follow unless the order given was patently illegal. I could add that a religious faith is an important motivator for some in leadership, but that would not reflect many of today’s good leaders who profess no such commitment.

    Many of these traits are also evident in civilian world view, where such people might naturally rise through industry or work to positions of leadership whether in politics, business or even trade unions. We expect to be led well, but it isn’t always the case.

    Mr Trump might have many failings, but he is after all a human being like all of us and surely his illness, whatever we think of him, or suspect about him, deserves our sympathy and prayer. Wanting ill for others is contrary to the greatest commandment Jesus gave us. “To love others as I have loved you”. Surely he deserves no less.

  5. Benedictine leadership as you describe it is the model for good leadership in many spheres, particularly in schools and universities. Not democratic but often deserved and only occasionally occupied by those who should never have been there. I do feel, looking at leaders of nations and often, but not always, at leaders in educational settings, that women demonstrate a style of leadership which it would be well to follow rather than the ‘strong leader’ which is lauded by many, taking counsel, being concerned for the best outcomes for the many and being brave in the face of those who scorn or mock. And it also behoves those who are led not to snipe from the sidelines but to pull together for the greater good.

  6. Dear Sister (and other readers) – you wrote: ” ,,,many have been maintaining for some time: that America’s claim to be ‘leader of the free world’ no longer holds good because there has been a retreat from leadership in many areas.” All I can say is “Amen” to this – especially as someone who lives and votes in the States. Many of us have been more than dismayed at what Mr. Trump has done (or hasn’t done) in the last three + years. Pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accords, selling out the Kurds to the Turks, starting a useless trade war with China, not to mention other countries. (Imagine my personal dismay when the price of my favorite single malt Scotch increased $5.00. I grew up in the 1960’s, certainly a time of unrest, BUT the words of President Kennedy continue to ring in my ears: “Not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Today it seems that most people are more interested in “what’s in this for me?” and dismiss any sense of “the common good” – if they even know what the common good is. Yet, it’s not just in the US, we see it in Russia, Turkey, North Korea, Poland and other eastern European countries, the Philippines, Venezuela – strong men, dictators, nativist and nationalistic attitudes, promising to keep “law and order’ (which is just a handy reference to oppressing any sort of public disagreement. And the UK isn’t that far from this, either. While my good friend John Green will be a tad upset by my saying this, Brexit itself is a manifestation of this idea of “going it alone” and having no need to be part of something bigger than one’s self. It is the equivalent of Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” which really simply means the heck with everyone else, all we need to do is take care of ourselves. Sorry to go on for so long.

    • Thank you. I was hoping to steer clear of party politics/any hint of finger-pointing when I wrote What is true of the U.S.A. is true of other countries and institutions, including the Church. There is a discernible lack of leadership which is very concerning.. My personal views on Brexit and go-it-alone policies are well-known, but in this post I was trying to draw attention to a much bigger question. There is a very real danger that both the common good and the concept of public service are being seriously weakened by a lack of leadership. As always, I leave a lot to the reader to do!

      • Yes. It is immensely complicated, and so we find it almost impossible to discuss because it seems Christianity (supernatural) talks on a different, yet parallel, register (to the empirical). Not least, the shifting from Being to existence (bigger questions to the immediate: ‘pragmatic’). The Common Good is now seen as a ‘uniformity’, or ‘humanity’, genetically programmed (‘the Left’), and the Soul, the ‘self’, or the ‘individual’, radically autonomous (the Right’). There seem to be no bigger questions because ‘there is nothing bigger’. ‘This’ is all there is. Even in Catholicism, it seems to me ‘mind’, or ‘reason’, has replaced wisdom (‘Rad Trad’), ‘flesh’ has replaced Incarnation (‘Social Justice’), ‘sense experience’ has replaced Spirit, or Gift (‘Charismatic’). Modernity has given us an immanent religion to replace the transcendent, with all the same/similar categories, yet without God. So, as the philosopher, James KA Smith gives as an example, ‘the mall’ has many ‘archetypal’ features of ‘temple’.

        That is, it seems the immanent and transcendent both offer ‘salvation’, but in radically different modes.

      • Please accept my apologies if my post suggested party politics or finger pointing. I continue to try and read the signs of the times and find myself wondering “what’s going on, God?” Perhaps on a collective level we are at an impasse – or a dark night of some sort in the development of the human race. Perhaps our collective “shadow self” is feeling more free to make its presence known. Sadly there are no easy answers here, and yes, things are complicated, but we ARE called to be light in the darkness – and these days that’s not always easy to do.

        • Not at all! I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I was simply trying to send out a warning to everyone that I didn’t want the post to become a magnet for an argument about Brexit, for example, or a Democrat v. Republican ding-dong. That has happened in the past and I’ve had to point out, as you have, that reading the signs of the times and trying to be light in darkness means engaging with difficult questions but not necessarily endorsing one view rather than another. Bless you!

          • Great. We had much the same issue years ago with the MonasticLife group. I do keep thinking about the leadership and what it means to be a leader. I think of the line of St. Francis – “Preach the Gospel always – using words only when necessary.” I often said that if I was ever officially called to be a pastor (I’ve been an unofficial one for many years) I would place a basin with a pitcher and a towel on the side to remind me, and the congregation what we should be about. At the governance level, when a decision was to be made, we would ask ourselves, “What effect, if any, does this decision have on the poor and marginalized?” And “How does this decision help us carry out our mission.”

  7. Working for a large organisation I’ve had chance to observe lots of leaders in the last 6 months. What I’ve noticed is the ‘map’ leaders tend to struggle. There are no real protocols for this. The ‘compass’ leaders tend to do better but the experience of being led depends very much on the direction of that compass. That’s been the challenge for me, to examine my own so when I do need to lead I have reliable bearings. I guess that’s nothing new for Christians but it’s provided a useful focus.

  8. A while ago I read some of Bl Columba’s letters. His spiritual advice is often powerful but to me it was just as edifying to note the humble and unaffected way in which he, while clearly capable of being decisive and exercising authority, asked for others’ opinions and advice when he felt he needed it. In one instance he writes to a very young woman living “in the world” (he finds himself in a potentially tricky social situation and she knows the family concerned): “Little sister, tell me quite simply as a brother what you think about all this”… A beautiful example of willingness to listen.

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