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.


Chimps, Champs and the Problem of Perfection

Chimpanzees have a sense of fair play which makes them share resources with one another; Lance Armstrong has fallen like Lucifer, never to rise again, because he won his famous races by breaking all the rules about doping; and Benedictines are celebrating the feast of two near-perfect disciples of St Benedict, SS Maurus and Placid. The connection is not the obvious one (viz. we are genetically very similar to chimpanzees but have somehow become less altruistic as we have developed), nor is it the contrast between Lance Armstrong’s elastic sense of honour and the unhesitating obedience of Maurus which saved the life of Placid. It is, rather, the whole idea of perfection and the burden it frequently places upon us.

As far as I know, chimpanzees are untroubled by the need to appear better than others. Male chimpanzees will fight to assert their right to breed, but for the rest of the time they apparently live in social groups which rely on mutual support to thrive. Hence, all that food-sharing which has so impressed recent researchers. Human beings are more competitive; they are also more devious. We often desire the appearance of something even more than its substance. Lance Armstrong wanted to win at any price. Had he become so obsessed with the idea of winning that he could not face failure? What tipped him over the edge, from competitive sportsman to someone prepared to use dishonest methods to achieve his aim? Who can say? We feel the disappointment of his failure because we wanted him to succeed. We wanted him to be perfect, and we feel let down to discover that he wasn’t.

Maurus and Placid present us with a different kind of problem. They are presented to Benedictines as exemplary disciples. Maurus saves Placid from the dangers of the lake through heroic obedience, but, enchanting though the story is, it has often proved anything but encouraging to those in monastic life. Modern novices are more likely to ask whether Maurus wasn’t perhaps a little soft in the head, dangerously literal-minded, hardly a model to emulate. He is just a little too perfect for our modern taste. We would prefer someone with a few flaws, just enough to make us feel he is one of us. We don’t want a perfection inhuman in its faultlessness.

The good news is that we are not called to be chimps, though the chimpanzee life-style may have its attractions at times; most of us are not called to be champs, though I daresay some of us would love to be really good at something. We are, however, called to be perfect. The perfection we have to aim at is not some inhuman flawlessness but a very human flowering of love and obedience — in other words, the kind of perfection the Gospels talk about, the being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Happily for us, such perfection is attainable and not burdensome because it comes as sheer gift. Which is an encouraging thought.