Substance over Style or Management for the Rest of Us

Devotees of Lord Sugar’s business methods may find today’s post rather baffling. What I say follows on from yesterday’s post and deals with the second half of Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. It is all about value, but not quite as that is often understood. It is about management in which substance is rated above style.

Benedict’s first point is that the cellarer must be humble (RB 31.13). No strutting his stuff or playing the status game. No, he must be grounded in reality (for that is what humility means) and that is the surest of all foundations for whatever he undertakes. The way in which that humility is worked out and manifested is interesting, especially when he is in what we would call a tight corner or asked for something impossible:

 . . . when he lacks the wherewithal to meet a request, he should give a good word in answer, as it is written, ‘A good word is above the best gift.’ (RB 31.13 quoting Sirach 18.17)

So, no bawling, no bullying, no primadonna tantrums, but courtesy and gentleness even in the most stressful situations. That is something to aim at, even if we fail dismally at times. Benedict goes on to say that the cellarer must not go beyond his authority. His powers are great, but if the abbot has said there is something he shouldn’t deal with, then he shouldn’t ‘presume to meddle with what has been forbidden him.’ (RB 31.15) Few of us like to think of ourselves as meddlers, but that is precisely what we are if we stray outside the boundaries of our duty. At a practical level, it can cause confusion and resentment. It can also lead us to have over-grandiose conceptions of our own ability, and that is never a good idea. The list of failed companies where the CEO had thought him/herself immune to market forces or even simple economics is long and growing longer.

Benedict’s cellarer is expected to be fair. If he isn’t, if he provokes others, then he is responsible for their failures. The example given in the Rule concerns the cellarer’s duty to provide for the brethren’s meals. If he is haughty or makes them wait unnecessarily, playing the power game again, ‘he must bear in mind what scripture says someone deserves “who tempts one of these little ones to evil.”‘ (RB 31.16, quoting Matthew 18.6) If you look at the scripture referred to in that sentence, you can see how very seriously Benedict takes the matter. Someone who does not act responsibly is a dead weight on the community—better he were not there at all.

Fairness is not all one-way, however, for Benedict recognizes that it is possible for an individual to be burdened with unrealistic demands, endlessly harassed by those who think that just because he is cellarer he must be constantly available to meet their every whim. On the contrary, Benedict stipulates that if the community is comparatively large, the cellarer must be given assistants to help him in his work and, tellingly, ‘Necessary items are to be applied for and distributed at appropriate times.’ (RB 31.18) How often does someone in a managerial position feel that his/her time is eaten up with small requests that interrupt the ‘real’ work of the day. Benedict has already made it plain that those small requests are, in fact, part of the real work of the day, but everyone in the monastery must ensure that they never become outrageously burdensome. He is asking, in effect, for a co-operative management style, having as his aim the peace and contentment of the community, for he concludes his chapter by stating that his reason for asking these things is ‘that no one may be upset or troubled in the house of God.’ (RB 31.19) That last touch, the reminder that the monastery and everyone and everything in it are God’s domain, is surely enough to remind any cellarer that it is God’s will he must do, not his own.

All very well in the monastery, you may say, but what are the practical applications outside? I think what Benedict says of the cellarer’s attitudes and behaviour are easily translatable into a secular context, although the language we use might differ a little. Good managers, whether they are running ICI or a small household, tend to have similar qualities. They are good at getting the best from other people because they respect others and are prepared to work collaboratively with them. That doesn’t mean they necessarily share their decision-making with them, but they are good at making people feel they are part of an enterprise rather than just a cog in a faceless machine. Courtesy, engagement (the ‘good word’), a sense of service, these are all important to the success of any business. They help create value. For Benedict, the supreme value  is the sanctification of the community members; for the rest of us, it is more likely to be a healthy balance-sheet and a happy workforce. Neither is to be despised.

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St Benedict’s Advice to a President

Benedictines in the U.S.A. are probably smiling at the appositeness of today’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict in relation to the Presidency. Chapter 31, On the Kind of Person the Cellarer (=Business Manager) of the Monastery Should Be, contains excellent guidance for any CEO or administrator. Just consider how it starts:

As cellarer of the monastery there should be chosen from the community a wise person of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful, but someone who is Godfearing and may be like a father to the whole community.

The personal qualities Benedict looks for are, first of all, wisdom and maturity, but what comes next is unexpected. Someone entrusted with care of the monastery’s goods and property must be disciplined — not personally greedy or exploitative, not inclined to make trouble, not vain, not lazy, not a waster. His role is to be a nurturer of the community entrusted to him. Those are surely points President Obama might think about as he enters upon his second term when the temptations of power must be greater than ever.

Benedict goes on to outline the way in which the cellarer is to conduct the business of the house: acting responsibly, keeping himself in check, being patient with those who are too demanding. He then gets down to specifics, and if they read like Catholic Social Teaching in a little, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The cellarer

should take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will have to account for them all on judgement day. All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels. He must let nothing be neglected. He should studiously avoid both miserliness and extravagant squandering of the monastery’s resources . . .

In other words, ‘normal business’ must include provision for those who are easily overlooked: the young, the sick (which will often mean the old as well), the poor, the migrant — those who are perceived by some as a drain on the economy. And he must do all this prudently, steering a middle course between miserliness and extravagance.

Of course, the motivation Benedict gives  may not be one that appeals to a secular-minded society. Notice how often allusion is made to God and his judgement. They are, as I said yesterday, a reminder that we need to pray for those we place in office over us. We in Britain must also pray because decisions taken in the U.S.A. affect the rest of the world. As Benedict will tell us tomorrow, at the end of his chapter, his aim is ‘that no one may be troubled or upset in the house of God.’ We are stewards for only a very little time but what we do, and how we do it, may last long into the future.

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A Different Way of Acting

Yesterday’s post looked at some aspects of the cellarer’s duties and the personal qualities needed to perform them well. The second half of RB 31 goes into greater detail about how the cellarer should behave in various demanding situations.

Benedict has already reminded us that everyone and everything is, potentially at least, holy — imprinted with the divine image and to be treated with the utmost respect. Now he says that the cellarer should ‘above all’ possess humility and answer kindly if he is unable to meet a request (RB 31.13, 14). There is real psychological insight here. When someone is responsible for the welfare of others, not being able to provide what is necessary can be hard to bear. A crotchety manner, a rough answer, apparent indifference, they are all ways of masking the inadequacy and failure that the person feels. Benedict will have none of it. The cellarer must have an interior freedom about his service which will enable him to answer mildly and with patience. Moreover, just because he has the power of giving or withholding goods, the cellarer mustn’t think he can behave in a superior manner, as though he were conferring a benefit on others. There must be no arrogance or delay in giving the brethren their food, for example (RB 31. 16).

Benedict is aware, however, that the cellarer himself must be treated with consideration or nothing will get done as it should. The proper times for asking for things must be adhered to, and there should be assistants if the community is comparatively large (RB 31.17, 18). What Benedict aims at is, above all, peace and harmony in community.

I have myself been cellarer in a large and comparatively rich community as well as in a smaller and poorer one. I’m not sure which presents the bigger challenge. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictine life. Monks and nuns in richer houses become too comfortable, forgetting the fervour and zeal with which they began. What was once enough becomes in time not quite sufficient, so that yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity. In poorer houses, the need to economize and make do becomes in time a kind of institutionalized miserliness. It is not too much to say that the cellarer bears a great responsibility for steering a middle course, ensuring that legitimate needs are met but no luxury or excess creeps in, not even in inverted form.

There is only one way of ensuring that the cellarer is equal to his responsibilities: fidelity to prayer and constant watchfulness over his own behaviour. To some, what Benedict has to say may sound naive. All right for monks and nuns, perhaps, but not for people in the ‘real world’. It depends what you think is real, I suppose. Benedict’s recommended way of acting is different from that of some of our corporate mega-stars, but I have a hunch that it makes for greater happiness in this world and the next. It certainly makes for greater fairness. What do you think?

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Gentleness with Self

For many years it’s been my practice to try to get up an hour earlier than the horarium demands in order to have more time for prayer and reading before the busy-ness of the day starts. Recently, it’s been proving harder to do. It’s cold and dark, and my bodyclock has been in rebellion. If St Teresa of Avila could admit that there were days when she couldn’t swat a fly for the love of God, why should I have any problem with my duvet difficulty? Because, of course, I do: I’m slightly rattled that I want to sleep when I feel I should ‘really’ be praying.

It’s very easy to beat oneself up about what one has not done: to feel a failure because one has not lived up to standards one has set oneself. I think that often causes a great deal of unnecessary anguish. Sometimes it is the anguish of mortified pride, because what we decide to do, even though good in itself, is not always of obligation. We are annoyed with ourselves for failing to do what we wanted, not what God asked.

We are currently reading St Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery (RB 31). I hope to comment more extensively tomorrow, but today I should like to draw your attention to just two points: according to Benedict, the most important quality the cellarer should possess is humility, and again and again it is stressed that he should do neither more nor less than is required of him by the abbot. The desire to do more can be commendable, but it can also be a form of spiritual ambition which is anything but godly. To tell them apart may require some delicate discernment. I may be wrong, but I suspect my need of sleep is greater than my need of extra prayer at the moment. God is being gentle with me. I just have to learn to be gentle with myself.

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