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.)

4 Responses to “3 Leadership Lessons St. Francis Taught me from his Failures”

  1. 1 Alex Bell June 30, 2021 at 9:25 pm

    Thank you Margaret, for these very interesting thoughts on St. Francis and leadership. What it made me think about was the difference between being a leader and being a manager. Francis may have been a good leader, but he does not seem to have been a good manager, and indeed, one person is rarely both. St. Paul is very good at describing all the different roles an organization needs, including the person who discerns gifts and places people appropriately.

  2. 3 elliottrobertson July 2, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    You obviously have done much research, Margaret. I’ve only read a book by Richard Rohr. Love these insights. The goddess of play tells me her playful spirit can be a huge boost to leadership.

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