Is There Such a Thing as Catholic Leadership?

Earlier this year I spoke to student leaders from all of the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Melbourne about the challenge of being a Christian leader in the light of the theme for World Youth Day 11: ‘Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith’ (Col 2:7). The reflections that follow were developed in the light of that conversation with those school leaders.

One of the most popular books on leadership in recent years was written by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. The opening line of the book reads, “The Leadership Challenge is about how leaders mobilize others to want to get extraordinary things done in organizations.” From this line we get a pretty good working definition of what a true leader is. Great leaders are able to harness the energies of a group of people, tap into their motivation to achieve something worthwhile, and focus that motivation upon a task that is worth their commitment. These abilities are the hallmark of all good leaders, whether we think of Pope John Paul II, Gandhi, Martin Luther King or even Simon McKeon, the 2011 Australian of the Year.

If we define leadership in these terms, then it raises the question about whether there is any such thing as a distinctively Catholic kind of leadership. To put it another way, does being a Catholic make a difference to the way in which we lead? And to push this line of questioning even further: is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be a leader motivated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

My first response to these questions is to say that a Catholic leader (and paradoxically, only a Catholic leader) can truly say with the pagan playwright Terence (d. 159 BC) “Nothing human is alien to me”. This is because a Catholic leader knows that Jesus Christ reveals what it means to be truly human (see Gaudium et Spes 22). This is the foundation of the inclusiveness that should mark every Catholic school, but it is also the litmus test of what must be rejected as incompatible with our true humanity. If as leaders in Catholic schools we do not regard Jesus as the model and exemplar of true humanity then we must ask ourselves what our alternative standard for truly human behaviour is. If leaders’ standards here are implicit and ill-thought out, then they run the risk of opting for a measure of true humanity that corresponds to the standards of the noisiest in our culture – the media and the market.

To put it another way, if leaders in Catholic schools want to fulfil Kouzes and Posner’s definition and motivate others to achieve extraordinary things in their schools then they will seek to build their leadership on the foundation of Jesus Christ because to do so is to lead through love. Love is the only power that can truly change the world. To exercise power without love is actually anti-human and so we look to God as the ultimate source of all love and the source of true change. In so doing we lead in a way that is consistent with the authentic humanity of everyone in the school, from the students to the teachers to the administration staff. As Chris Lowney suggests in his book on leadership based on the insights of St Ignatius Loyola, leadership based on the Gospel will thus be heroic leadership. To love as Christ loves and to lead in the light of that love requires heroism, even if it is of the unheralded kind.

Our Catholic faith therefore will inform how we mobilize others; it will shape why we want to achieve something and it will declare what qualifies as a truly extraordinary accomplishment. Being a Catholic leader should mean that we aim higher than anyone else, because our vision settles for nothing less than human beings fully alive. Our organisations also ought to be places where people want to work and make their contribution because the constant motivation for what we do is the love revealed in Jesus Christ and the dignity of every human being made in God’s image. There is such a thing as Catholic leadership, and it should make us the most effective leaders around. The final questions to pose then are these: If our schools are not organisations that excel in producing men and women that are truly alive, then why aren’t they? And as truly Catholic leaders, what might we do about that?

<This article was originally written for beingCatholic, Choicez Media’s e-journal for Catholic educators>

Posted on August 23, 2011, in Leadership and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks Fr Chris, you pose a very challenging question, especially if we suppose that there is a difference between a Catholic ‘leader’ and Catholic ‘leadership’ and I think you express the distinguishing feature through Terence’s quote. I wonder if there is something also in St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:7 ‘For I would that all men were even as I myself’. Not in a cult of personality manner, but in the sense that a true Catholic leader motivates others not just to do what they do or think how they think, but to be what they are (or try to be), because the leader himself or herself truly strives to reflect Jesus.

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