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.


Plain and Gentle Speech: the Eleventh Degree of Humility

When [a monk] does speak, he should do so gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising his voice. As it is written, ‘A wise person is known by the fewness of his words.’ (RB 7. 60–2, the Eleventh Step of Humility)

Those words, which we read today, have always struck me as applicable to more than monks and nuns because they stress both the importance of speech and the difficulty we all have in ensuring that our speech is always and everywhere what it should be. Words matter, and the way we use them matters, too, so it is no accident that Benedict places this short reflection almost at the end of his chapter on humility. It is perhaps the hardest kind of humility to attain, requiring not only constant watchfulness over what we do say, but also over the thoughts and feelings that prompt what we say. The humility of the tongue is hard won, but look how Benedict categorises its effects: gentleness, seriousness, humility, wisdom.

Gentleness isn’t always admired by those who make a living from the words they speak because it is often mistaken for weakness, but true gentleness is actually a sign of strength. The gentleness of Jesus before his accusers is a case in point: his speech and his silence came from the same deep source, the union between him and his Father. Benedict doesn’t want his monks to be weaklings, afraid of speaking out, but strong people, who make their words count. They have no need of stridency or aggression. They speak from a position of thoughtfulness, mindfulness. What they say is measured, prayerful even. They are serious in the best sense, sincere and earnest. That doesn’t mean there is no room for humour — far from it — but the humour of the cloister is never obscene or destructive of another. (The Latin word I have translated as ‘mockery’ is rather harsher than I am able to convey in English.) A monk’s speech ought never to be long-winded (because he has thought beforehand and knows, more or less, what he will say); nor should he ever raise his voice in argument, because he respects his interlocutor too much to try to drown him/her out. He is always ready to listen, to respond.

Of course, most of us fall short of the ideal much of the time, but is is good to have an ideal; to know that, even in our speech, we can be an aqueduct of the wisdom of God — not a fountain, for all comes from him; not a river, for we are too insignificant; but definitely an aqueduct, channelling some of the wisdom of God to others through our human words. And to be an aqueduct we must first make sure the foundations have been laid in reading and prayer.