6 Leadership Lessons of St. Francis

Photo Credit: Tony Basilio via flickr

As I walked on pilgrimage this month in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, I pondered what I could learn from him about leadership.  Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership.  And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance what approach to leadership would prove effective.  As I reflect on Francis’ life, six lessons in leadership effectiveness stand out to me.

  1. Be true to yourself. Francis traveled a number of paths before he found the one that was right for him.  The son of a successful cloth merchant in thirteenth-century Italy, Francis seemed destined for business success.  From playboy to soldier to knight to cloth merchant, Francis experimented with paths he thought might suit him.  It was only when he heard God’s call to rebuild the church that he discovered his true path.  Yet when he abandoned his father’s business and embraced poverty and service, the townspeople called him crazy.  For years he wandered through his native city following a path that no one understood.  In time, as he persevered in pursuing the way that was his to pursue, a few people caught his vision and began to follow him.  Eventually, his followers numbered in the thousands.  By being true to himself and persevering in the face of misunderstanding and mockery, Francis forged a new way that attracted thousands.
  2. Love God passionately. Francis brought the passion of his former life to his love of God.  Not one for half measures, Francis fell utterly in love with God, and loved with abandon.  He roamed the countryside singing of his love, and he constantly sought ways to please God.
  3. Embrace all. Francis learned early on that rebuilding God’s church meant embracing everyone.  He embraced the leper who represented the lowest caste in society.  When people began to follow his way, he embraced brothers from the highest class to the lowest, inviting them to live together in simplicity and community.  When Clare ran away from home in order to follow him, he embraced her and helped her establish a women’s order.  Francis learned to see the gifts that each person brought and to embrace people with gratitude for their contributions.
  4. Live with joy. Francis lived with contagious joy.  His delight in the beauty of nature, in the uniqueness of each person, in the gifts of God, drew people to him.  Even in adversity, Francis lived with joy.  For example, when a hut in which he took refuge for a night proved to be infested with mice, after an initial expression of displeasure, Francis welcomed his “brother mice” with joy and hospitality.  His joy disarmed friends and detractors alike.
  5. Approach power courageously. Francis, the “little poor man of Assisi,” decided early in his ministry that he and his tiny band of brothers should approach the Pope to ask for his blessing on their way of life. Undaunted by Pope Innocent III’s wealth and power in contrast to their outcast status, the rag-tag band walked from Assisi to Rome.  Rebuffed by the cardinals when they arrived, they persevered in seeking an audience with the Pope.  After the Pope had a dream in which he saw a little poor man holding up a huge church, he realized he needed to talk to Francis.  Francis and the brothers, fearless before the Pope, described their way of life as living the gospel as Jesus intended.  The Pope, impressed by their sincerity and commitment, gave his provisional blessing.
  6. Reach across differences. The Crusades broke Francis’ heart. He hated seeing Christians fighting Muslims over the holy land.  In 1219, he traveled to Egypt where the battle was raging, and crossed enemy lines, unarmed, in order to speak with the Ottoman Sultan.  He hoped to find common ground, and risked his life to do so.  He boldly spoke to the Sultan and the Sultan listened attentively.  Though he didn’t achieve reconciliation, the two men left the encounter with mutual respect and admiration.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, discovered how to be an effective leader as he followed his calling.  Much of his success in leadership was a side effect of his faithfulness.

St. Francis displayed a great deal of love and courage during his lifetime, and he influenced many people through his example.  His life, teachings, and spiritual insights have attracted many followers through the years.  His teachings are timeless and continue to live on today.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in the May 2015 Executive Soul blog.)

Note: Francis also suffered a number of failures in leadership which can also prove instructive (to be explored in a subsequent reflection).

 

Good Friday, Scapegoating, and American Politics

Photo Credit: Paul Sableman via flickr

Jesus, a victim of scapegoating, understood all too well its origin and its outcome.  From the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Crucify him!” of a few days later, Jesus witnessed the fears of the human heart and how easily those fears turn to blame.  Good Friday marks the ultimate scapegoating, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

What is happening in the heart of the person who turns to scapegoating? It’s easy for us humans to believe that by hating a person we despise, we separate ourselves from evil and differentiate ourselves as good. Yet the opposite is actually true. When we give in to hate, we begin to become like what we are hating. When hatred and violence grow in our hearts, we move closer along the spectrum toward the object of our hate.  Jesus knew this on Good Friday, and he also knew how unconsciously this was occurring when he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The battle between good and evil plays out not between individuals but within individuals. The battle between good and evil is fought within every human heart. Yet we naturally shun the fear and hatred within us, and so we seek shortcuts instead of doing the hard inner work we need to do.  When a leader arises who blames a person or group for our woes, whether in a family, an organization, or a nation, the appeal of that leader proves strong.  At this moment in American politics, Donald Trump’s scapegoating of various groups, including Mexicans and Muslims, is proving irresistible to many.  Why do the hard inner work, personally and as a nation, when it is so easy to blame others?

The trouble with scapegoating is threefold.  First, of course, it damages the individuals and groups who are its targets.  Second, it damages the ones who hate those individuals and groups by filling their hearts with fear and hatred.  Third, it doesn’t solve anything.  When, in the history of the world, has scapegoating resulted in a good outcome for those who scapegoat?  Never.  There is some relief for awhile, but the problems don’t go away because they haven’t been addressed at the root. So the cycle repeats itself: a new scapegoat gets identified, that person or group is crucified or chased out of town, some relief is felt for awhile, the problems resurface, and so on.

Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”  Who are the least of these today?  In America today, they are those we scapegoat.  Will we keep crucifying Jesus?  Will we keep participating in scapegoating or not standing up for those scapegoated? Who are you, this Good Friday?  Are you in the crowd, shouting “Crucify him!”  Are you Peter, not standing up for Jesus?  Or can you find it in your heart to stand with Jesus to the end, as the women at the foot of the cross did, and stand up for those scapegoated in our time and place?

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in March 2016.)

Girls Rising

Photo credit: vazovsky via flickr

Today, on International Women’s Day, I want to celebrate girls who are rising out of poverty and all those who support them.

Not too long ago, I viewed the film “Girl Rising.”  The film reminded me of the invisible chains that bind many girls and women around the world.  It also introduced me to heroic leaders, women and men who dedicate their hearts and souls to the task of unbinding the chains of girls trapped in the cycle of poverty, helping them move toward freedom.

Girls in developing countries face barriers to education that boys don’t.  When a family can afford to educate only one or two of their children, they invest their resources in the boys, understandably, since men have traditionally had more earning power and more status in society.

Girls chained in poverty are often forced into child labor and into arranged marriages, becoming spouses to older men while they themselves are only 12-14 years old. Many girls become victims of human trafficking, experience physical and sexual abuse, and bear children while still in their teens.

When girls in poverty receive an education, the cycle of poverty is broken in one generation:

A number of organizations are leading the way in educating girls to break the cycle of poverty.   Room to Read, CARE, World Vision, Girl Up, and Partners in Health are but a few. Courageous leaders teach night school for working girls, provide funding and convince parents to allow their girls to go to school, and support parents who take the risk of educating their girls.

Brave girls step up and take advantage of these opportunities.  Challenging their parents, studying late into the night when they must work during the day, challenging the norms of their societies, girls overcome many barriers to learning.

What is your part? All of us can help release girls from the chains of poverty.  Whether we volunteer to teach, whether we support those who volunteer, whether we donate money, we can help. May those of us who have so much join these brave pioneers and work for the freedom of girls in poverty.

 

(This is a further development of a blog which first appeared in June 2014.)

Broken New Year’s Resolutions?

Photo credit: David Merz via flickr

Have you broken your New Year’s resolutions yet? If so, you’re not alone. A study at the University of Scranton reported that 36% of participants had broken their New Year’s resolutions by the end of January. By the end of six months, over half had broken their resolutions.

What if we thought of our broken New Year’s resolutions not as evidence of weak willpower, but as a sign of other important commitments that need just as much attention as our resolutions need?  A book that can help do just that is Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in You and Your Organization.

Using your broken New Year’s resolutions to identify your competing commitments can help you get to the bottom of what isn’t working for you in your life.  More importantly, identifying competing commitments can help you achieve your goals much more effectively than New Year’s resolutions can.

Here’s how it works, according to Kegan/Lahey:  When you find yourself breaking a resolution, ask yourself, “In addition to this resolution, what else am I committed to?”  (In my own case, my resolution to not overextend myself competes with my commitment to not miss out on something good.)  Once the competing commitment is identified, you can begin to seek a win/win.  Rather than having your competing commitments sabotage your resolution, you can dig deeper, identify your underlying assumptions, and take small steps to test whether those underlying assumptions are valid.

In the workplace, resolutions to change are particularly vulnerable, since many people are colluding in the status quo, and since old patterns die hard in the fast-paced, no-time-for-reflection work environment.  Like individual New Year’s resolutions, organizational change efforts tend to focus on desired change without digging deeper to examine competing commitments. We’re all familiar with the term “resistance,” used to describe the forces that keep us from changing, both individually and organizationally. It’s easy to view resistance negatively, viewing it as the effort to cling to the old when it’s time to usher in the new. If instead of thinking in terms of organizational resistance to change, we can think in terms of competing commitments, we can mine rich veins of learning.

For example, Jean Quinn, the co-executive director of Sophia Housing in Dublin, Ireland, realized that a “command and control” leadership style inconsistent with the organization’s values had established itself in the organization.  Because leaders had learned that style elsewhere and imported it, Quinn knew that their immunity to change would not be easy to overcome.  She decided to call in an organizational consultant who would work closely with supervisors in the organization over an extended period of time to surface underlying assumptions and help people reflect on them. The organizational consultant, invited to offer leadership training in modules over six months, helped leaders in the organization identify their competing commitments, noting how leadership practices out of alignment with Sophia’s culture had crept in and how everyone had colluded in not challenging them.  The supervisors worked with leaders both during the program and after, continuing with them in ongoing supervision after the six months were over.  Through the integration of the training and supervision, Sophia’s leadership culture shifted, once again becoming more person-centered.  Jean Quinn observed that, through surfacing assumptions and helping people talk about them openly, a culture of openness was created.  The immunity to change had been overcome.

The next time you’re feeling discouraged by a broken New Year’s resolution, look deeper. You’re likely to find a competing commitment that is just as important and honorable as the “failed” commitment. If you can find a way to honor both commitments together, you may find yourself well on the road to success. What you learn from your “failure” can ultimately build a stronger foundation for moving toward your goal.

(This article first appeared in the January 2015 Executive Soul blog.)

 

Spiritual Foundations of Racial Justice

Howard Thurman. Photo Credit: Fourandsixty

At this time of bitter political division around the world, in this time of rising racial tensions, I find myself asking, “Who will bring healing to us? Who will bring us together?” As we have recently celebrated Martin Luther King Day and as we approach Black History Month in the U.S., I wonder, “Where did Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. find his strength? Where did he get support? How would he guide us in these times?”

Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown recently reminded me that Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman served as a spiritual guide to King.  Thurman helped King stay spiritually grounded in the midst of his struggles for racial justice.  King carried a copy of Thurman’s groundbreaking book, Jesus and the Disinherited, wherever he went.

Moreover, Thurman served as a spiritual guide for many others in the Civil Rights Movement.  He advised James Farmer, Sherwood Eddy, Pauli Murray, and A.J. Muste.  He reminded leaders that, like a tree, their strength and reach went only as far as the depth of their roots.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida. He experienced God in nature and was profoundly influenced by his grandmother, a former slave and a person of deep faith.  After graduating from Morehouse College as valedictorian of his class, he was ordained a Baptist minister and went on to study at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Eventually, he became Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and then Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.

In 1935, Thurman traveled to India, where he met Gandhi.  The two conversed widely and deeply and Gandhi questioned Thurman closely about racial injustice in the U.S.  Gandhi opined, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman viewed his calling as being a spiritual support to the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and as helping them learn a nonviolent approach to working for racial justice.  He knew that the success of the movement depended upon its spiritual foundation.  He prayed deeply and worked tirelessly to build that foundation and nurture the leaders.

If we could ask Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King how to face the challenges of our time, I’m convinced he would point us to God.  He would remind us that we need to draw on our spiritual foundations to face the challenges of these times.  Racial justice will come only through deep spiritual transformation.  The healing of our political divisions, likewise, requires spiritual grounding.  King would urge us to seek wise leaders like Thurman to guide us in developing our spiritual foundation.  May we draw on the inspiration of King and Thurman and deepen our spiritual roots to face the challenges of our time.

 

(An earlier version of this blog first appeared in January 2017.)

8 Beatitudes of Good Politics: Pope Francis’s World Day of Peace Message

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Once again, Pope Francis has issued a challenge to world leaders to live up to their calling, and a scathing rebuke to those who abuse their power, all in the simplest and most familiar of ways.  Pope Francis’s message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, 2019, “Good Politics Is at the Service of Peace,” highlights 8 “beatitudes” of good politics, proposed by Vietnamese Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Vãn Thuận.

First, Pope Francis points out that peace “is like a delicate flower struggling to blossom on the stony ground of violence.”  He then links peacebuilding to good politics.  Good politics, for Francis, involves heeding Jesus’s exhortation that anyone who would be first must be the servant of all. Thus, good political leadership involves service and can be a form of charity:

Politics is an essential means of building human community and institutions. . . Political office and political responsibility thus constantly challenge those called to the service of their country to make every effort to protect those who live there and to create the conditions for a worthy and just future. If exercised with basic respect for the life, freedom and dignity of persons, political life can indeed become an outstanding form of charity.

With this understanding of political leadership as service, he turns to the “Beatitudes of the Politician:”

It may be helpful to recall the “Beatitudes of the Politician,” proposed by Vietnamese Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Vãn Thuận, a faithful witness to the Gospel who died in 2002:

Blessed be the politician with a lofty sense and deep understanding of his role.

Blessed be the politician who personally exemplifies credibility.

Blessed be the politician who works for the common good and not his or her own interest.

Blessed be the politician who remains consistent.

Blessed be the politician who works for unity.

Blessed be the politician who works to accomplish radical change.

Blessed be the politician who is capable of listening.

Blessed be the politician who is without fear.

At the same time that Pope Francis outlines his understanding of good politics in the service of peacebuilding, he doesn’t shrink from naming the forces that work against peace, calling out the behaviors of world leaders who aren’t living up to their calling. Although he doesn’t name names, he names attitudes and behaviors that identify particular leaders:

Sadly, together with its virtues, politics also has its share of vices. . . We think of corruption in its varied forms: the misappropriation of public resources, the exploitation of individuals, the denial of rights, the flouting of community rules, dishonest gain, the justification of power by force or the arbitrary appeal to raison d’état and the refusal to relinquish power. To which we can add xenophobia, racism, lack of concern for the natural environment, the plundering of natural resources for the sake of quick profit and contempt for those forced into exile.

Pope Francis concludes by challenging leaders to protect and include young people in peacebuilding and leadership, and by offering a vision of peace for the world that all can help build:

Peace, in effect, is the fruit of a great political project grounded in the mutual responsibility and interdependence of human beings. But it is also a challenge that demands to be taken up ever anew. It entails a conversion of heart and soul; it is both interior and communal; and it has three inseparable aspects:

– peace with oneself, rejecting inflexibility, anger and impatience; in the words of Saint Francis de Sales, showing “a bit of sweetness towards oneself” in order to offer “a bit of sweetness to others”;

– peace with others: family members, friends, strangers, the poor and the suffering, being unafraid to encounter them and listen to what they have to say;

– peace with all creation, rediscovering the grandeur of God’s gift and our individual and shared responsibility as inhabitants of this world, citizens and builders of the future.

As we approach the new year of 2019, let us heed Pope Francis’s words and rise to the challenge of being good leaders and people of peace.

 

 

America’s Dark Night of the Soul, Part 2

Photo credit: Michelle Geuder

At this darkest time of the year, both Jews and Christians celebrate holidays of light. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates one of God’s miracles: the long–burning oil that allowed the Jews to rededicate their holy temple in victory over foreign oppressors. Hanukkah celebrates the light of religious freedom after dark oppression.

Christmas also celebrates the triumph of light over darkness: God’s entering the world in Jesus, and the light of Christ overcoming the darkness in the world.  Both religions exhort the faithful to remember that the night is darkest just before the dawn, that we must not lose hope but that we must trust the God who has the power to deliver from even the darkest night.

Great spiritual teachers throughout the millennia have taught that any spiritual journey consists of ups and downs, and that sojourners on the spiritual path can experience a personal dark night of the soul. If the faithful persevere, they will discover that the personal dark night, like the historical darkness commemorated by Christianity and Judaism, is darkest just before the dawn, and the breakthrough to the other side is worth the walk through the darkness.

In institutions and societies, as in personal lives, the deepest darkness comes just before the dawn. If an institution or society perseveres, it can experience the great power and light that come with breaking through to the dawn.

At this time of bitter political divisions in the U.S. and around the world, of rising racism, terrorism, and scapegoating of minorities, of environmental degradation, and of wars and genocide, it’s easy to wonder where the light is.

One guide for me in this time of darkness is St. John of the Cross. John describes the personal dark night as a time of necessary self-emptying, not of our choosing. We fill ourselves with knowledge and accomplishments and loves and allow these to define us. Yet growth involves emptying. Constance Fitzgerald summarizes John’s understanding of the process of emptying:

Only when one becomes aware of the illusory and limiting character of this fullness in the face of the breakdown of what/whom we have staked our lives on, the limitations of our life project and relationships, the irruption of our unclaimed memories, and the shattering of our dreams and meanings, can the depths of hunger and thirst that exist in the human person, the infinite capacity, really be experienced.

John claims that this deep hunger and thirst, this infinite capacity for love, cannot be fulfilled by our human loves and accomplishments, but only by the transcendent.

Constance Fitzgerald extends John’s work to the societal level.  In this time of societal impasse, when it seems that our human attempts to figure out solutions to our overwhelming problems only run us into brick walls and tempt us to cynicism and despair, John, Fitzgerald claims, offers a way forward.  Fitzgerald claims that “paradoxically, a situation of no potential is loaded with potential, and impasse become the place for the reconstitution of the intuitive self.”

Fitzgerald believes that the insoluble crises we face are signs of transition in societal development and in the evolution of humanity.  These crises provide an invitation for us as a society to empty ourselves of rationally constructed answers that no longer work.  The crises invite us to humble ourselves and seek deeper wisdom, wisdom that emerges from letting go, from our collective intuition, from prayer.  In the words of II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people humble themselves and pray and seek my face. . .”

Fitzgerald challenges us to bring our societal impasse to prayer.  It is only through letting go and seeking God’s perspective and God’s way forward, she claims, that society will be freed, healed, and brought to paradoxical new vision.  Only in this way can we be set free for selfless action.  “Death is involved here – a dying in order to see how to be and to act on behalf of God in the world.”  Dying leads to new life.  Out of the darkness comes light.

In this season of darkness, let us respond to the invitation to let go of our egos and preconceived notions, and seek the deeper wisdom that emerges when we become empty.  And may our society humble itself, recognizing the limits of human understanding and effort, and seek a way forward guided by the emergent divine.

(This article first appeared on the Executive Soul blog in December 2016.)