August 2020

A wise leader uses ‘different strokes for different folks’

Within the Rule of Benedict, the contemporary relevance of wisdom for leaders is as impressive as the Rule’s longevity, writes Sister Patty Fawkner in an open letter to President Trump. 

Dear Mr President,

Greetings from “Down Under”. We haven’t met, but I had the pleasure of living in the United States during the 2000 George W Bush vs Al Gore presidential campaign. Since then I have had an abiding interest in American politics.

I realise that unsolicited advice is generally not appreciated, but it occurred to me that I could share some wise counsel about principles of leadership that would enhance your presidency were you to be re-elected on November 3, and would enhance your life in your business career if you weren’t. I give this same advice to myself.

Would you believe these principles are 1500 years old, having been written for a community of Italian monks, seemingly far removed from the maelstrom of American politics? However, within the Rule of Benedict, the contemporary relevance of wisdom for leaders is as impressive as the Rule’s longevity. 

Like you, Benedict is a man who doesn’t pull any punches. He is direct in calling out what a leader should NOT be – “excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or over-suspicious”. Obviously, such a leader isn’t emotionally stable and risks running a toxic administration.

The greatest no-no, ‘sin’ if you like, for Benedict’s leader is pride – pride in one’s ego, one’s power, one’s possessions and achievements.

Correspondingly, the greatest virtue is humility. You become your best self by being humble and Benedict  gives some helpful practical advice such as, don’t set yourself above the Rule or the law; don’t play favourites; neither be self-serving nor self-promoting; subordinate your personal desires; admit your weaknesses; and value silence. I’m pretty sure that he’d counsel against any ‘noisy’ midnight tweets. 

The first word of the Rule is instructive. “Listen”, and listen with a particular quality, “Listen with the ear of heart.” You and I are both leaders, and I know it behoves me to try and listen with every fibre of my being. I know that I need to listen better in order to understand and learn, and I need to listen to try and become aware of my biases and prejudices. 

I know that you love nothing more than a good deal. Benedict asks, “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” Now, here’s the deal. Benedict says, “If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim”. No fake news, Mr President, and no playing loose with the truth.

Building on this, Benedict has some helpful images for a good leader, two of which are shepherd and healer.

Look, I’m the first to admit that the image of a shepherd doesn’t really cut it today, and that Christian images of shepherds can look effeminate and sentimental. But Benedict uses the image to connote the notion of servant leadership.

Even when you act as Commander-in-Chief you can still fulfil your duties with the heart of a servant and be a Commander-in-Care and a Commander-in-Compassion. 

The actions of a servant leader are never for self-glorification, but always, always, for the good of others. And when things go wrong, which they inevitably do, the servant leader steps up, accepts accountability and responsibility rather than shifting blame. I recall reading about the Confederate General Robert E Lee who gave credit to others for his victories and successes but took immediate responsibility for his failures and any rare defeat. 

Benedict calls his leader, the Abbot, to be a physician or healer – the perfect image during this time of pandemic. The Abbot had particular concern for the sick, and your country has so many ill people at this time. A healing leader’s actions promote harmony rather than dissension; their words build up, rather than tear down; they unify rather than divide. They are concerned for the well-being of all their constituents, especially those who struggle in any way. I suppose in the case of the United States, this could be those who don’t have health insurance, undocumented immigrants, people who are homeless, unemployed, and ethnic and racial minorities.

Such a leader adapts to the people and situation at hand with moderation and discretion, which Benedict calls, the “mother of all virtues”. In a memorable phrase Benedict says the leader “must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from”. We might say in today’s parlance that a wise leader uses “different strokes for different folks”. 

When the going gets tough and leaders have to make some inevitable hard calls, they must do so with “prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he [or she] may break the vessel”. A beautiful image of tough, but tender love. We might call Benedict’s leader a “wounded healer”, as the leader is urged to “distrust his (or her) own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed”.

Benedict would insist that the heart of all leadership is about relationships.  His leader is a person for others.

People rather than deals and political point-scoring must be the leader’s first priority. All people, no matter who, are to be treated with “the courtesy of love”. This seems an old-fashioned notion, but I love this phrase, which overflows with respect and sensitivity. 

We know that no leader has it all. Benedict’s leaders weren’t superhuman, actually, they weren’t super anything, realising that they needed wisdom and a skill-set that complemented their own. In Benedict’s monastery, the leader in the person of the Abbot, never makes an executive decision without counsel and advice from others. He even listens to voices that are usually excluded. Could I humbly advise you, Mr President, to surround yourself with wise advisors, people who don’t tell you what you wish to hear, but advisors who, hopefully like you, have the common good of all America’s citizens at heart; advisors who are as diverse as America’s citizens. Perhaps Joe Biden has an advantage over you here with his choice of South Asian African-American Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.

Even though Benedict wrote for male leaders of men, women have found Benedict’s principles, with their practical wisdom and spiritual guidance, perfectly applicable to them.

I’m pretty sure he would approve of some of the fine female leaders who have shone during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders who are strong and nurturing, courageous and caring. I think you could learn some valuable lessons from them. 

As an aside, I admire Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. In a recent interview, she spoke of the shortfalls of populism and macho leaders. She didn’t name names, but perhaps she was thinking of Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Russia’s Putin, or Duterte from the Philippines. Gillard gave a most memorable speech in the parliament about misogyny, which stalked her within and beyond the parliament during her term of office. I’d strongly encourage you to watch it and learn from it. Actually, I wish you could have seen it when you were campaigning against Hillary Clinton.

Thank you, Mr President, for taking time out of your busy campaign schedule to read my letter. You have numerous gifts and skills. I believe Benedict’s wisdom could help you build on this. Please know that I do genuinely pray for you and pray that, whatever the outcome of the election, you will be gracious in victory or defeat.

Yours sincerely,

Sr Patty Fawkner


Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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