Soulful Leadership in Finance

Photo credit: Becky Stern via flickr

The past decade has witnessed scandals, corruption, and greed in the financial sector. The U.S. and Ireland, in particular, have produced many examples of how financial misbehavior damages people and the economy. Bankers have suffered an unprecedented loss of respect in the eyes of the public, and “finance,” for some, has become synonymous with “corruption.” Not surprisingly, The New York Times concluded in 2012 that “the misconduct of the financial industry no longer surprises most Americans. Only about one in five has much trust in banks, according to Gallup polls, about half the level in 2007.”

In the midst of this greed and corruption, is anyone exercising soulful leadership in finance? Is anyone showing an alternative path?

Partners for the Common Good, in the U. S., and Clann Credo, in Ireland, have been faithfully pointing the way to an alternative approach to finance for years. They believe that the purpose of finance is to serve the common good, and they have discovered innovative ways to do that in the midst of a culture that does anything but. For example, in the conservative banking industry, where revolutionary ideas often meet with resistance, the founder of Clann Credo, Sr. Magdalen Fogarty, pushed the envelope by continuously urging bankers to embrace new ideas: “Why not give it a try?”

Clann Credo, founded in 1996, pioneered the idea of social finance in Ireland. With a mission to “design and promote innovative Social Finance products and services” which “contribute to inclusive prosperity and develop social capital in a way that benefits everyone,” Clann Credo launched its work. Having grown steadily over time, in 2011 it provided more than 10 million Euros in loans to nearly 100 projects which would not have qualified for bank loans.

Partners for the Common Good, created in 1989, serves as a “collaborate vehicle for religious institutions to help the poor and empower the marginalized” through providing loans to people who would not otherwise qualify for credit. To date, PCG has provided loans to more than 100 organizations engaged in economic development, and won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Microenterprise Development in 2001.

Equal Exchange, for example, a U. S. company funded by PCG, partners with Latin American farming cooperatives to pay a fair price to poor farmers for their coffee beans. From selling coffee to religious communities and churches, Equal Exchange has expanded to selling in grocery stores and other retail outlets. A successful business, Equal Exchange has also influenced large coffee businesses to offer fair trade products.

Ballybunion Sea and Cliff Rescue received funding from Clann Credo when it needed a new lifeboat. The organization trains and deploys volunteers to rescue people at sea, and, since its founding in 1986, has carried out over 250 rescues. An all-volunteer organization, Ballybunion Sea and Cliff Rescue has successfully raised funds in its community for 28 years to keep its operations going.

Not only do the loans bring about economic development, they also keep providing capital to new projects when they are repaid. Both PCG and Clann Credo report a high rate of repayment, higher than the rate of repayment that most banks experience with loans to businesses. These loans contribute to economic development and are, at the same time, a good financial investment.

Financial tools are powerful. Like any powerful tools, they can be used for ill or for good. Partners for the Common Good and Clann Credo demonstrate the power of financial instruments when used for good. “Finance” need not be synonymous with “corruption.” May others draw inspiration from PCG’s and Clann Credo’s innovation and vision, and follow in their path.

(This article first appeared on this blog in July/August 2014.)



Photo Credit: Hernán Piñera via flickr

Freedom is on my mind.  As the U.S. prepares to celebrate Independence Day in a few days, I’ve been contemplating my freedoms.

I enjoy the freedom to vote for the candidate of my choice.  I enjoy freedom of religion.  I enjoyed the freedom of a good education, which gave me the freedom to do work I love and the freedom to marry the person I chose.  I enjoy freedom from want, with a place to live and food to eat. I enjoy the freedom to live where I want to live and to travel to the places I want to travel.

The film “Girl Rising” has moved me deeply.  It’s a film that reminds 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 enjoy so many freedoms join these brave pioneers and work for the freedom of girls in poverty.

(An earlier version of this article appeared on this blog in June 2014.)

Technical and Adaptive Leadership in Database Conversion

Photo credit: INPIVIC Family via flickr

Last week, we celebrated a milestone in our office at the Shalem Institute: the conversion to a new database.  If you’ve ever been through the switch to a new database, you know the pitfalls and headaches associated with it.   My colleague Ruth masterfully managed the project, and the headaches (at least for the rest of us) were minimal.

Ruth’s outstanding work made me reflect on Ronald Heifetz’s distinction, in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, on the difference between technical and adaptive leadership.  In a database conversion, many technical challenges arise.  For example, Ruth had to learn the old system, learn the new system, think about how to move information over to a very different configuration of data, plan when to do the move (at a time of less activity in the database), and learn and teach how to run dual systems for a few months while we got all the kinks out.

At the same time, the technical challenges comprised only about half of the task.  Heifetz defines adaptive leadership as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” Adaptive challenges, unlike technical challenges, have no clear answers.  They involve people, with their varying levels of technical expertise and their differing needs and values.  While training is available for technical work, adaptive work often comes with only questions.

It would be possible to do a flawless database conversion technically, but still have the project fail because the adaptive work was not addressed.  The adaptive challenges, based on needs and values, are often even greater than the technical challenges.  In our office, for example, we have varying levels of technical expertise, so we need different levels of training.  In addition, our different spheres of responsibility lead to different values. The finance team values accuracy, transparency, and audit-worthy procedures.  The registrars value clarity and easy access to information. Different kinds of reports need to be generated by different teams.

Ruth’s task as project manager involved not only mastering the technical side of the database conversion but also the adaptive side.  In the adaptive work, she helped mobilize us all to tackle the tough challenge of the database conversion and she helped us to thrive as we did it. As in all adaptive work, she had no clear roadmap.  She knew she wanted to make it through the database conversion with us thriving on an individual and organizational level.  She kept that goal in mind as she paid attention and supported us, both in the design phase and in the execution phase.  She held regular meetings with various teams, helping them articulate their needs, and helping them understand the challenges they would face as they adapted to a new system.  She held several meetings with the staff as a whole, showing us goals that had been achieved and helping us get on board with the direction we were heading.  She met with us individually, patiently listening to our needs and teaching us how to use the new database in our own spheres of responsibility.

By understanding and addressing the needs of individuals, Ruth was able to accomplish a main component of adaptive leadership, that which Heifetz describes as “giving the work back to the people at a rate they can stand.”  Because she practiced adaptive leadership as well as technical leadership, our organization successfully navigated its challenges despite some bumps along the way.

Both technical and adaptive challenges arise in any leadership situation.  Even in projects that seem overwhelmingly technical, the iceberg of adaptive work threatens to destroy the careful technical work.  It is by understanding both the technical and adaptive sides and using the very different skills required to address each that leaders can best guide their organizations to thrive during challenging times.

3 Leadership Lessons of St. Clare

Photo credit: Fr James Bradley via flickr

As I prepare to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis and St. Clare beginning two weeks from today, I’ve been musing on St. Clare’s leadership.  St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), best known as St. Francis’ “little plant,” emerged as a strong leader in her own right in thirteenth-century Italy and beyond.  While St. Francis took center stage with his extraverted charismatic leadership, St. Clare quietly built stronger structures behind the scenes.

As I muse on St. Clare and her contributions, three leadership lessons stand out for me.  Clare teaches me about prayer, community-building, and persistence.
First, Clare knew the power of prayer.  She knew that prayer provided the foundation for all of her leadership.  Without prayer, without her radical trust in God, she could do nothing.  She prayed for strength and guidance when she was called to lead her community of “Poor Ladies” as a young adult.  Later, when an invading army swarmed her vulnerable convent of San Damiano, outside the protection of the city walls, she prayed.  Upon praying, she felt led to stand at the window in front of the army, armed only with the host, the body of Christ, and her trust in God.  Faced with Clare’s shining strength, the army became confused and fled.  Thus, through prayer, Clare saved not only her convent but also the city of Assisi.  Finally, Clare’s prayer undergirded her day-to-day leadership in the convent.  When faced with lack of food, with illness, with cold, she prayed.  People brought turnips, medicine, and blankets, and year after year, all the Sisters’ needs were supplied.
Second, Clare knew how to build community.  Though she lived in an enclosed community at San Damiano her entire life as a Sister, she built community both at home and afar.  She showed her 50 fellow Sisters how to live together in compassionate service in cramped quarters and difficult conditions.  Beyond San Damiano, she instructed Agnes of Prague, a princess who left behind wealth and status to found a religious community like Clare’s, in building a convent.  While Francis’ communities faced divisive conflicts, Clare taught her communities to work through conflicts in ways that built stronger relationships.  And she also built relationships near and far, with St. Francis and his brothers, with priests, with bishops, and with Popes.
Third, Clare lived perseverance.  Her entire life, she fought for a way of life like Francis’ in which she could be true to the gospel as she understood it.  For her, this meant living in poverty, in total reliance upon God.  She appealed to every Pope in her lifetime to approve the rule she had written to regulate life in her community.  When Pope after Pope said no, she didn’t give up.  Finally, on her deathbed, the Pope sent word that he had heard she was dying and he wondered if there was anything he could do for her.  When she said, “Approve my rule,” he relented, and she received papal approval two days before she died.
Leading with soul is never easy, whether one lives in thirteenth-century Europe or modern times.  The way is often fraught with stresses, discouragements, and obstacles that challenge our commitment to walk our path with faith.  However, we can turn to those who have come before us, those like St. Clare who embody the qualities of a good leader. They show us not only that it is possible to lead with soul but also that we are not alone in the journey.
(An earlier version of this article appeared in the April 2016 Executive Soul newsletter/blog.)

Leadership for Peace

Photo Credit: Bradley Weber via flickr

As I prepare to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi in six weeks, I’m immersing myself in his life.  At this time in the life of our world, I’m finding myself drawn to Francis’s peacemaking skills.

St. Francis exercised peace leadership.  In the early thirteenth century, when Pope Innocent III rallied the troops for another Crusade against the Muslims in the Holy Land, Francis was appalled.  The Crusades broke his heart.

As Francis prayed about what part he was called to play, he felt moved to travel to Egypt where the Crusaders’ army found itself at a standoff with Sultan Malik Al Kamil’s army.  In the midst of the conflict, Francis felt called to cross battle lines and meet with the Sultan himself.

Cardinal Pelagius, the commander of the Crusaders’ army, at first refused Francis’s request to meet the Sultan, fearing that Francis would be killed attempting to cross to the other side.  At last he relented, in part because of his calculation that Francis might be better dead than alive, no longer pestering him about making peace, when Pelagius was committed to the path of war.

Miraculously, largely due to the openness of the Sultan, Francis crossed the battle line and survived.  Against the counsel of some of his generals, Sultan Malik Al Kamil agreed to meet Francis, and they had a mutually respectful conversation.  While Francis, not an official representative of Cardinal Pelagius, couldn’t formally respond to the Sultan’s proposal for compromise, Francis spoke of his desire for peace and affirmed the humanity of the Sultan and his people.

Cardinal Pelagius refused Malik Al Kamil’s proposal for compromise and continued his siege of the fortress city of Damietta until its inhabitants had died of starvation or by the sword.  Then he turned his face toward Cairo, ambitious to conquer that city.

Malik Al Kamil opened the sluice gates of the Nile, stranding the Crusaders’ army in the middle of the flood plain.  As the days on the plain stretched into weeks, Pelagius’s army ran out of food and began to starve.  Malik Al Kamil’s generals advised him to take advantage of the Crusaders and kill them while they were weak, just as Pelagius had done with the inhabitants of Damietta.  Instead, Malik Al Kamil retired to pray and returned with a different response.  He fed the Crusaders so they wouldn’t starve.  Shocked that the Sultan’s army brought them bread instead of killing them, the Crusaders began to see Malik Al Kamil and his people as human beings, and lost the will to fight them.  Subsequently, as word spread, Pope Innocent III had more difficulty mustering up an army to fight the Crusade, and the Crusade gradually sputtered out.

Because both Francis and Malik Al Kamil recognized in the other a person of deep faith and a person of peace, a way forward emerged when it had appeared there was no way.

How can the example of St. Francis and Sultan Malik Al Kamil enlighten us? How can their decision to seek peaceful resolutions within a world intent on war inspire us during the conflicts in our current world? Might we resolve to recognize the humanity in those whom we have been taught to view as “enemies” and together contemplate a better path ahead through dialogue and a commitment to work toward peace? The brave determination of the thirteenth-century peacemakers leads me to ask, “What is mine to do?” in the midst of conflict between Christians and Muslims today.


Presidents and Truth'_Fable.jpg

Grant Wood; “Parson Weems’ Fable”; 1939; oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; 1970.43

The first story I ever learned about George Washington ended with “I cannot tell a lie.”  He had chopped down a cherry tree, the story goes, and when his father confronted him, he told the truth.   The first story I ever learned about Abraham Lincoln ended with him chasing down a customer whom he had accidentally short-changed, so that he could pay her what he owed, thus earning the name “Honest Abe.” These stories, whether true in detail or not, reflect an important value: Presidents who tell the truth, Presidents who are honest, are to be honored.

On this day when the U.S. celebrates Presidents’ Day, honoring Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I find myself musing on Presidents and truth.  In this “post-truth” era, with a current President who offers “alternative facts,” I’m reflecting on how we got to where we are now.

Our Presidents reflect who we are.  The “post-truth” era started long before the campaign and election of the current U.S. President.  Ken Wilber’s excellent analysis in Trump and a Post-Truth World” traces the development of post-modernism, pointing out its important strengths, as well as pointing to how its shadow, narcissism and nihilism, has led us to where we are today.

If our Presidents reflect who we are, how can we more fully become who we want to be? Where do we go from here?  I believe that the philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan can provide us help.  Lonergan calls humans to “authenticity,” which he defines as openness, questioning, honesty, and good will.  He unpacks those elements of authenticity by focusing on the operations of consciousness within us that result in our knowing what we know, and the inherent norms accompanying those operations. Lonergan demonstrates how the fruit of authenticity is objectivity.  He agrees with post-modernists that there are no “already-out-there-now” facts that we can simply take a look at and know. Rather, all information that comes to us is interpreted through the lens of our identity and experience, in other words, through who we are.  However, Lonergan believes that this reality doesn’t imply relativism and nihilism.  As we move closer to becoming authentic subjects, objectivity results.  Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.

If we want our leaders to be authentic human beings who honor truth-telling, we can begin by becoming more authentic ourselves.  Furthermore, we can create communities of authenticity that call our institutions and our leaders to higher standards.

The hard work of moving out of narcissism and nihilism begins with us.  And when we have blazed a trail and created a path, others will follow.  People yearn for authenticity.  Let us take the lead and challenge our leaders to follow.

Spiritual Foundations of Racial Justice

Photo credit: the.urbanophile via flickr

Photo credit: the.urbanophile via flickr

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 approach Martin Luther King Day 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?”

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.