Posts Tagged 'Francis of Assisi'

3 Leadership Lessons St. Francis Taught me from his Failures

Photo Credit: Randy OHC via flickr

As St. Francis’ Feast Day approaches on October 4, I’ve been reflecting on what I can learn from his leadership failures.  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.

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.

2. 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.

3. 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 be more effective leaders.

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

6 Leadership Lessons of St. Francis

Photo credit: MK Feeney 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.

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

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