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Benedict has wisdom for good leadership

By Paul Paproski, OSB


MUENSTER, Sask. — The Rule of St. Benedict is the administrative and spiritual guide for the Order of St. Benedict and it has good advice, not only for Benedictines but for colleges and schools, said Abbot Elias Lorenzo, OSB, of St. Mary’s Abbey, New Jersey, speaking to the public and the Benedictines of St. Peter’s Abbey on the theme, “Good Zeal in Benedictine Education,” May 11.Abbot Elias Lorenzo, OSB

Many scholars believe St. Benedict became more pastoral as he gained experience as an abbot in community life. The Rule has 73 chapters, and the last five are the most pastorally sensitive. Chapter 72 has the theme, “The Good Zeal of Monks,” and it expresses the wisdom that can be used for educators to teach good leadership. Chapter 72 is the high point in the Rule. It is the “depth-dimension or key that summarizes St. Benedict’s insight into leadership. It brings everything in the Rule together.”

The chapter points out that there is a “wicked zeal of bitterness” which causes division and separation, and, conversely, a “good zeal” that builds on one another and leads to God. Quoting chapter 72, Lorenzo said, “’No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.’ ”

Education that emphasizes good zeal is the antidote to the polarization and separation that characterizes society today, Lorenzo commented. The Rule, in Chapter 72, offers good advice on building society. There are five points that flow from the chapter, he said. They include: 1) become the first to show respect to the other; 2) support one another’s weaknesses with patience; 3) compete in listening to others; 4) pursue what is best for others, not yourself; 5) give pure love with no strings attached.

Benedict believed that educators who “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” are those who build people and community. Preferring Christ to everything else is a means of opening oneself to God’s grace and one’s heart to God’s word. The grace of God nurtures listening to what others have to say. An open heart is the key to selfless service which needs to be taught by academic leaders.

Jesus identified himself in the tradition of servant leaders, Lorenzo commented. Jesus said that those who want to be first must be last and servant of all (Mt 20:26-28). Jesus demonstrated this form of leadership by washing the feet of his disciples. He then instructed his disciples to serve others in the same way he just served them (Jn. 13:1-15) .

Service is one side of the coin of leadership; the other side is shared leadership. Leadership can be centralized and servant-oriented; however, Benedictine leadership is shared. The Rule instructs the abbot to appoint assistants to help him in decision-making and to share in the administration of his monastery. Individuals are delegated to care for the sick, welcome and look after guests, manage the kitchen and monastic property.

Lorenzo pointed out some characteristics of servant leadership that have been expressed by Christians and successful business leaders. Some of these characteristics include: 1) listening skills; 2) empathy; 3) the ability to find solutions that build healthy workplaces; 4) an awareness of others’ needs; 5) persuasive decision-making, rather than authoritarianism; 6) foresight or knowledge of the past to imagine the likely outcome of a situation; 7) stewardship.

“Good leaders are able to empower others because they can admit they do not have all the answers,” Lorenzo remarked. Good leaders are capable of making decisions along with the advice of others. Good leaders understand that it takes time to find answers. Benedictines appreciate the importance of using time wisely because they think in terms of centuries.

Servant leaders invest in people, knowing that everyone is on a journey together. Leaders who follow the servant model know that they cannot solve the world’s problems alone. They are aware that we already have a saviour and there is only one saviour in the world. There will be successes and failures and all experiences have lessons to teach. A servant leader is able to pray alone and with others.

“When we reflect on these ideas about servant leaders and shared leadership, we realize all these are Benedictine values contemporary management theorists have put in other words. It may explain why Benedictine monasteries have survived 1,500 years,” Lorenzo concluded.

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