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

Photo credit: Margaret Benefiel

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?




All the Saints

Photo credit: Margaret Benefiel

All Saints Day, November 1, the day when all the saints who don’t have their own Feast Days are celebrated, has me reflecting on other saints.  Who are the saints who have not yet been recognized as such?  Who are saints who have had a particular impact on my life?

Three saints who immediately spring to mind for me as ones who have had an impact on my life are Sr. Mary McGowan, Desmond Tutu, and my cousin Gary, none of whom have been officially recognized.  While none of them are perfect, all of them have provided me with glimpses of God.  All of them have taught me about soulful leadership.

Sr. Mary McGowan served on the staff of the Spiritual Guidance Program at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation when I participated in the program in the mid-eighties.  A quiet presence, she exuded love.  Extremely insightful, she quickly saw through illusion and had the habit of regularly raising the penetrating question that punctured any self-importance or self-righteousness I was carrying.  When she died recently, I felt a sharp sense of loss despite having not seen her in over thirty years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the mid-nineties, suffered under apartheid.  Then, through prayer, he learned the power of forgiveness to transform suffering into compassion.  Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he helped South Africa avert a bloodbath and find its way into the future.

My cousin Gary had a rough start in life.  As he grew, I watched him turn to God and discover God’s healing power.  He wanted to pass on the compassion he had received, first by serving as a pastor and then by working with at-risk youth and young adults, training them with the skills they needed to find employment and succeed in life.

I experienced all three of these saints as not only giving deeply from their hearts, but also as having a light touch.  Laughing easily, helping others feel at home, and being down-to-earth are gifts shared by all three.  Saintliness does not preclude lightheartedness; indeed lightheartedness is often one sign of the Spirit’s work in a person.

Who are the saints who have had an impact on your life?  Whether recognized officially as saints or not yet recognized as saints, in whom do you see God? Who has been a spiritual leader for you? Who has invited you to follow a path of deeper engagement with Holy Mystery? If you’re like me, the unsung saints may be just as important, if not more so, than the official ones.  This All Saints Day, honor the saints who have inspired you and helped you along the way.

6 Leadership Lessons of St. Francis

Photo credit: Jim McIntosh via flickr

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 oppressed people and victims of natural disaster.  How would he respond, for example, to Puerto Rican hurricane victims and to black NFL players “taking the knee?” 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/newsletter appeared in May 2015.)

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.)