5 Things You Can Do to Become a Soulful Leader for Peace

In these times of bellicose threats of nuclear war from world leaders, not to mention various wars around the world, how can one work for peace? What impact can an ordinary person have? What does soulful leadership for peace look like?

  1. Prayer and reflection. Soulful leadership for peace begins with prayer and reflection. Being spiritually grounded puts the problems of this world in perspective. Furthermore, prayer and reflection help with discernment, answering the question, “What is mine to do?”
  2. Remember. In the words of Gandhi, “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.”
  3. Know what’s effective. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth used to believe that violence was more effective against violence than peaceful protests were. Extensive research convinced her otherwise.
  4. Know the facts about military spending. When people tell you that military spending creates jobs, or that the Pentagon needs more funding, know the truth. Did you know, for example, that military spending is less effective in creating jobs than spending on education, health care, or clean energy? Did you know that the Pentagon itself has identified overspending and misuse of funds within its agency? When it conducted an internal study, it identified $125 billion in potential savings over five years. Furthermore, the Pentagon is the only major federal agency that has not passed a full, clean financial audit. We already spend enough on the military.
  5. Take action. Discern what is yours to do and take action. Perhaps you, like Erica Chenoweth, are a researcher who can discover effective strategies for peace and make them known to the world. Perhaps you are a writer who can write letters to the editor of your local newspaper and speak truth to your community. Perhaps you are an activist who can join local or national demonstrations. Perhaps you are an ordinary citizen with little time, who can call your Senator or sign online petitions. Perhaps you can make a financial contribution. Everyone’s contributions, in whatever form, make a difference.

In these times, the world desperately needs spiritually grounded peacemakers. What is yours to do?

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

St. Francis and Sultan Malik Al Kamil: Leadership for Peace

As I prepare to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi in a few short 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 conflicts, in Ukraine and elsewhere, today.

This is a further development of the Executive Soul blog that first appeared in March, 2017.

What Good is Praying for Peace?

Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

This morning, as Russians and Ukrainians begin talks in Belarus, I am praying for peace. At the same time as I pray, I find myself asking, “What good is praying for peace?” In examining my experience of praying for peace, I observe several things.

First, praying for peace changes me. I notice that, as I pray for peace, my desire to be a peaceful person increases. I notice my motivation to de-escalate conflict in my marriage, my family, my faith community, my workplace, my neighborhood, and my world growing stronger. Creative ideas about how to achieve this goal spring up, as well.

Second, praying for peace results in divine guidance about what part is mine to play. As I pray for peace, sometimes I am led to spend more time in prayer supporting activists in the streets, sometimes I am led to protest in the streets myself, sometimes I am led to write letters to my elected officials, and sometimes I am led to give money to groups working for peace. Along with this divine guidance comes a sense of freedom and energy, and the sense that I am being the best link in the chain of peacebuilding that I can be and that I don’t need to engage in hand-wringing or waste my energy worrying.

Third, praying for peace helps others. I often hear from those I am praying with or praying for how much their energy and creativity and effectiveness increased when they were the recipients of prayer (and I experience this myself when others are praying with and for me).

Fourth, praying for peace makes a difference in the world. While most of the time I can’t see the effects of my prayer, I sometimes can. Occasionally I hear of people whose minds were changed or people whose hearts were encouraged as they stood for peace in the upper echelons of power. At the times that I can’t see the effects of my prayer, I trust that it strengthens the Russian athletes opposing the war, that it encourages Ukrainians not to give into despair, that it sparks creativity in diplomacy, and that it waters a host of other seeds of peace being sown in this conflict even as I write.

Finally, my faith tells me that praying for peace is good in itself. While I can’t always know the good that comes from praying for peace, I do it because I am a follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and I want to follow in his footsteps.

May we pray for peace in these perilous times, both knowing the good outcomes we see as a result, and also trusting in the ones we can’t see.

Heavy Hearts and Active Hope, Part 2

Last month, I wrote in this blog about carrying a heavy heart due to the COVID surge, police killings of black and brown people, voter suppression, the undermining of democracy, and the destruction of our precious planet. This month, these continue to weigh on my heart as I add to the list the imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Last month, I wrote about “Active Hope,” articulated by Joanna Macy, as a practice to help us face these seemingly intractable problems. This month, I add Constance Fitzgerald’s work to supplement and buttress Macy’s, then close with a practical tool by Alan Seale.

In her essays in Desire, Darkness, and Hope: Theology in a Time of Impasse (Cassidy and Copeland, eds.), Constance Fitzgerald points to the intractable problems we face today as indications of the limits of the rational mind. The finest minds in the world have tried to address these problems and failed. She names our time a time of “impasse” as we seem stuck in so many arenas.

Fitzgerald claims that we need to go deeper than the rational mind can take us if we want to address this impasse. She draws on the work of St. John of the Cross and his concept of the Dark Night as a way to go deeper. For John of the Cross, she claims, the Dark Night of the Senses, when we no longer see God’s answers to our prayers or hear God’s voice or feel God’s closeness, is God’s invitation to let go of our preconceived notions of who God is and what God should do. It is an invitation to be purified of our attachments, emptied, so that there is room for God to enter. The subsequent Dark Night of the Soul, when God seems to have disappeared entirely, reveals deeper attachments and provides a further invitation to purification.

Once we have said “yes” to this invitation to let go, opening space for God, prophetic hope emerges in unexpected ways, claims Fitzgerald. We have a sense of what is ours to do, perhaps only one small step at a time.

Alan Seale’s work, “The Deep Simple,” complements Fitzgerald’s with a practical tool for going deeper that can be used with individuals or groups. Seale’s questions go deeper than the rational mind in order to open us to the hidden wisdom within.

The five questions of “The Deep Simple” are:

  1. What are three things I know to be true about this?
  2. Which of those things holds the greatest power for us to explore right now?
  3. With that thing that you choose to explore, if something new was trying to emerge or something wanted to shift, what might that be?
  4. Who is that asking you to be? What role is it asking you to play in that shift?
  5. What is one step you can take now that begins movement toward that shift?

With Constance Fitzgerald and John of the Cross’s spiritual process of self-emptying, complemented by Alan Seale’s “Deep Simple” practice, I can begin to get unstuck and take my first steps. Though my heart remains heavy, I have tools to help me move forward.

Heavy Hearts and Active Hope

            As 2021 draws to a close,  I find myself carrying a heavy heart.  Just when we thought we were coming out of COVID, the omicron variant struck.  Emergency rooms and intensive care units overflow again, deaths increase, health care workers are again stretched beyond their limits. 

            Furthermore, after the inauguration earlier this year of the first woman of color as a Vice President in the United States and a President committed to racial justice, I imagined the country would be further along in stopping police killings of black and brown people.  And I imagined more people of color would be able to vote. Instead, we got more police and vigilante killings of people of color and new restrictive laws prohibiting people of color from voting.

            And I imagined the first steps of healing the bitter political divisions in this country.  Instead, we still have people defending the January insurrection and people still questioning the validity of elections won fair and square.

            And I imagined the first steps of healing our precious planet.  Instead, legislation is being blocked right and left as our world burns.

            I find myself crying out, “How long, O Lord?”  I wanted a straight path from vaccination to re-opening. I wanted a straight path from the U.S. election to racial justice and a functional democracy.  I wanted progress toward healing our planet.  I wanted to be further along by now.

            As I search for inspiration in these times, Joanna Macy’s work speaks to me.  In the group process she uses,  The Work that Reconnects, she articulates the place of Active Hope.  Active Hope, she claims, is not a feeling but a practice.  We choose to practice Active Hope.  The three steps of this practice, 1) facing reality, 2) identifying what we hope for, and 3) identifying the steps of action that are ours to take to move toward that goal, though deceptively simple on the surface, prove powerful in practice.   As she points out, most books addressing the problems of the world focus either on analysis of the problems or on solutions to those problems.  Analysis and rational solutions get us only so far.  Active Hope, on the other hand, focuses on how to strengthen and support our intention to act.  While left-brain analysis is important, right-brain imagination, inspiration, and intention complement that analysis by providing the strength and will to take effective steps toward change. Furthermore, when right-brain imagination, inspiration, and intention are practiced in a community of like-minded souls, their power is multiplied.

            I don’t have a master plan. I don’t know the way forward on a grand scale.  My heart is still heavy.  Yet I know that I can practice Active Hope, and that doing so will make a difference in the world.  As Margaret Mead reminded us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Learning the New Song

The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out. It has long ago been learned by heart so that now it repeats itself over and over, bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit… I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words born of all the new growth of my life, my mind, and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody—how I shrink from the harsh discords of the new untried harmonies.”

(Howard Thurman)

As I have reflected on this meditation by Howard Thurman during this recent election season in the U.S., I’ve asked myself, “What is the old, tired, familiar melody in my life at this time?” I realize that it is fear, despair, obsessive worry, knee-jerk actions. What is the new song for me? Discovering it requires listening. It’s God’s invitation to something fresh and new in each moment. It requires listening, learning the melody, and then singing along. These past two weeks, since the election, have been an invitation for me to deeper prayer.

When I awoke on November 3, the day after the elections, I felt dismay and anxiety. I had wanted a landslide for the candidates I favored and watched in apprehension at what unfolded before my eyes. I felt heavy-hearted that racism had played a significant role in some major elections.

How could my dismay at what was happening be turned into productive prayer and action, rather than obsessive anxiety? As I listened for God’s prayer in me, I heard the new melody. I found myself being drawn to pray deeply that what is of God in each person in this country would be raised up and that what is not of God would fall away. I have returned to this prayer many times a day since that Wednesday morning.

As I pray, I have a sense of God working, of the good being raised up in leaders of both parties, of the good being raised up in judges to give them the courage to reject frivolous lawsuits, of the good being raised up in ordinary citizens to give them the will and the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood as they listen to the rhetoric of politicians.

I have a vision of others who are uniting in the same prayer that I am praying, holding up one another’s arms in prayer as Aaron and Hur did for Moses, so that we don’t give up when we grow weary. The vision I see includes some who are called to pray at this moment, some called to work for fair elections and protection of our democracy, some called to work for voting rights, some called to witness in the streets, some called to pray now and work tomorrow, others to work today and pray tomorrow, some to work and pray at the same time. The work and the prayer are integrated. As I listen for the new song, I continue to pray and sense how God is at work. I feel confident I will know what is mine to do when.

As I listen for the new song, my prayer also moves to those who are marginalized. I’m aware of many who have been and still are suffering deeply, of the children at the border who were and still are separated from their parents, of the black lives lost in police killings, of those in poverty especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and more. I pray that whatever is of God in marginalized people will be raised up to give them hope and remind them of their dignity when they are tempted to despair. I pray that whatever is of God in the rest of us will be raised up to give us strength and courage to fight for the protection of those on the margins.

This prayer feels deeper than any particular election. We so need the good to be raised up in each of us as we move forward now as a country, as a world. Those of us who disagree with one another, who supported different candidates, need the good to be raised up in us so that we are not tempted, respectively, to gloat or to turn to bitterness and despair. How can I personally listen for the good? How can all of us carry out respectful dialogue and find our way forward as fellow citizens seeking to re-build a democracy together?

May we each continue to listen for the new song that is ours to sing. May we all learn to sing the new melodies. The degree to which we each faithfully sing our new song will determine the degree of harmony and healing manifested among us.

[This is a further development of the November 2020 Executive Soul blog.]

Crisis Leadership

“Don’t waste a good crisis,” admonished Winston Churchill during World War II. A crisis suspends the status quo and makes possible what wasn’t possible before. A crisis reveals ways of operating that worked in the past, but which are no longer relevant in the new circumstances. At the Shalem Institute, where I serve as executive director, we wondered what we might be able to do in the crisis of COVID-19 that we hadn’t been able to do before. We wondered which of our old ways needed to be shed in the new circumstances. We knew the Chinese character for “crisis” meant both “danger” and “opportunity.” What was the opportunity hiding in this crisis for us? What was the danger? We continued to dive deep and listen, going beneath preoccupation with our own fears and discomfort to the bedrock of God’s abiding presence and guidance. We waited and listened and watched….

In the end, the crisis of COVID-19 allowed us to break through barriers that had confined us: expanding the Group Spiritual Direction program, doing significant leadership development and expanding and diversifying our team of program leaders, manifesting the next incarnation of a program for personal spiritual growth, moving our files to the cloud, making the Shalem Society gathering of program graduates affordable and accessible, and strengthening working relationships within our administrative staff, not limited by geography.

Another second crisis, that of police killings and subsequent protests, a time of racial reckoning for our country, put the United States’ original sin of racism front and center. Again, we at Shalem were called to ask, “What is ours to do?” What was the invitation for Shalem in this crisis, both internally and externally? For years Shalem, a predominantly White organization, had been working toward more diversity on its board and staff, with limited success. The time was ripe to work more broadly toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.

We took a number of steps to begin to address this issue. We still have much work to do and we have begun to look at next steps we can take toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in our organization. The crisis of police violence and the related protests in the United States have provided Shalem with the opportunity to step up and do our work. This second crisis allowed us to break through our complacency as a White organization and name the ways that we were complicit in racism and begin to take steps to become more anti-racist. We have begun a long journey, and I pray that we will have the courage and perseverance to continue.

The admonition to “not waste a good crisis” has served us well. Crises provide important opportunities. May we all have eyes to see the invitations contained within them.

This blog is an excerpt from Crisis Leadership by Margaret Benefiel, adapted and used with permission of the publisher (Morehouse Publishing, 2021).

6 Leadership Lessons of St. Francis

Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

As we approach the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct 4, I ponder what I can 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. I can’t help but wonder what Francis would say today about responding to suffering people. How would he respond, for example, to refugees from Haiti and Afghanistan or to those displaced by hurricanes or wildfires, or to those suffering from COVID-19? On Francis’ feast day, perhaps we can seek to look at the world through his eyes and seek to live, love, and lead as he did.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in May 2015.)

3 Leadership Lessons of St. Clare

As St. Clare of Assisi’s (1194-1253) feast day approaches on August 11, I’ve been reflecting on her soulful leadership. Best known as St. Francis’ “little plant,” Clare eventually emerged as a strong leader in her own right in thirteenth-century Italy and beyond. While St. Francis took center stage with his extroverted 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 from afar, much as we have had to do during the pandemic. 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, whether they be a pandemic, injustice, or political instability, 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 blog appeared in April 2016.)

3 Leadership Lessons St. Francis Taught me from his Failures

Last month, as I “walked” on a virtual pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, I reflected on six leadership lessons I learned from his success. 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 which approach to leadership would prove effective.

Francis’ failures can prove just as instructive as his successes. As I reflect on Francis’ life, three lessons in leadership effectiveness that I can learn from his failures stand out to me.

  1. Clarity of mission. When Francis returned home to Italy from his journey to Egypt in 1220, he found his brothers divided and in conflict. Brother John had decided to organize the lepers the brothers were serving into a religious order and requested approval for the order from the Holy See. Brother Phillip had sought special protections from the Pope for the Poor Clares (defying Francis’ instructions not to seek favors in high places). Brothers Matthew and Gregory had imposed stricter fasting guidelines on the brothers, more appropriate for monks than for active friars. All of these measures had stirred up turmoil in the order and revealed a lack of clarity about the purpose of the life of the brothers. Conflict-averse himself, Francis had avoided clarifying the mission of the order, either personally or in concert with his brothers. Without clarity of mission, brothers had different understandings of what direction their lives and ministries should go. As the order had grown and with Francis away, the situation had spiraled out of control.

Clarity of mission can help a group stay focused through the stresses of growth and the temporary absence of the leader.

  1. Preparation for leadership. In 1217, Francis had sent several groups of brothers out in ministry beyond Italy, to Germany, Hungary, England, and the Holy Land. While the impulse was one of generous service, the missions failed. Lacking preparation, the brothers couldn’t speak the language of the country they visited, didn’t understand the culture, and didn’t know how to translate their mendicant ways into a new setting. Furthermore, many of these brothers had recently joined the order themselves and had no experience of leadership in their home context.

Adequate preparation can help lessen the shock of a new environment. And gradual introduction to leadership responsibilities in one’s own setting can prepare the way for greater responsibility in a new setting.

  1. Leadership succession. Francis decided to go off on mission himself when other brothers left on mission in 1217. He only got as far as Florence, where Cardinal Hugolino dissuaded him and he returned to Assisi, convinced by Hugolino of the order’s need for his leadership at home. But the urge to travel in ministry returned, and he left for Egypt in 1219. Though Francis did appoint leaders to be in charge in his absence, he hadn’t carefully considered what was required to lead a religious order, much less groomed others to take on those responsibilities. The result, combined with the lack of clarity in mission mentioned above, was disastrous. This episode served as a precursor to what happened when Francis died, when the fault lines in the order revealed themselves and caused more serious division and an eventual split in the order.

Careful attention to raising up leaders can help a group through the difficulties of transition and keep a group moving together toward its goal when a leader is away for an extended absence or when the leader retires or dies.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, succeeded in a number of ways as a leader and also failed in a number of ways. Both his successes and his failures can prove instructive. By reflecting on both his successes and his failures, leaders today can learn how to become more effective.

(This is a slightly revised version of the post that appeared in the June 2015 Executive Soul blog.)

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