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?

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How to Be a Good Leader

We usually think about SS Maurus and Placid in terms of discipleship and obedience. In previous years I have commented on the way in which they are presented as near- perfect and the problem that poses for those of us who are imperfect (see here and here). But we live in a world where being a disciple, a follower, isn’t much favoured. We all want to be leaders now. Even applications to join the monastery often read like a pitch to become CEO of a major corporation! I think it is time, therefore, to take the story of Maurus and Placid as told in book II of Gregory’s Dialogues and see what it tells us about leadership rather than discipleship.

Gregory tells us Placid went to fetch water from the lake. Placid fell in but Benedict, being made aware of the situation by God’s grace, sent Maurus to rescue the youngster. Maurus, having received the abbot’s blessing, walked upon the water and rescued Placid. Later, St Benedict attributed the miracle to Maurus’ obedience; Maurus attributed it to St Benedict. It was Placid who settled the matter: ‘When you pulled me out of the water,’ he said,’ I saw over my head Father Abbot’s hood, and I saw that it was he who pulled me from the water.’

The first thing to note is that this is hagiography, not history. It expresses a spiritual truth: the value of obedience in conforming us to Christ. But there is an interesting dynamic at work. Both Maurus and Placid were unhesitatingly obedient to their abbot. Were they simpletons, doing what they were told because they hadn’t the brains or individuality to think for themselves? Was Benedict an overbearing taskmaster whom they feared to disobey, or a charismatic looney of the kind we see in some cults, demanding that his followers do silly or dangerous things? I think the answer is neither. Both Maurus and Placid obeyed Benedict because they trusted him.

Trust tends to get a bad press these days. How many people feel they can trust anyone? Distrust has become our default position. It affects family life; business life; Church life. Leaders may be ‘thrusting’ ‘dynamic’ and all the other buzz words we find bandied around, but are they trustworthy?

The quality which set Benedict apart as a leader was precisely that: trustworthiness. As presented by Gregory in the Dialogues, and even more as we see him in his Rule, Benedict comes across as a true man of God, one who ‘lived as he wrote’; who prayed, worked, served and did not shirk responsibility. He was painfully aware that one day he would have to answer to God for the souls of all those committed to his care, including, in some measure, those who had gone astray. That sense of responsibility affected every decision concerning those over whom he had any authority. It made people trust him, knowing they could rely on him. That is, or should be, true of every religious leader today. I would suggest it should also be true, mutatis mutandis, of every good leader, whatever their sphere.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail