Humility, Mediocrity, and Leadership

In his recently published book, The Better Pastor, Patrick Lencioni presents a short fable on how leadership principles can help pastors “think about their ‘jobs’ a little differently.” Essentially, he is boldly inviting priests, and lay leaders by extension, to improve their ability to lead. 

There are lots of ways to approach leadership development, but the most common response I have seen to the proposal that leadership skills or organizational function can be improved is avoidance. Many people who work in the Church seem bothered by even the suggestion that they may benefit from applying “business” principles to their work. Some pastors and members of parish staffs, even chancery employees, express mistrust of things that are seen as making the Church too professional or too “corporate”. I think that The Better Pastor challenges these concerns head-on. By telling this fable about a pastor’s journey of growth as a leader, it clearly shows how the practical changes he makes help him to be a more effective, happier, priest.  

When we get serious about being better leaders in the Church, both pastors and laity have to deal with two very real issues in order to make progress: mediocrity and humility. Both require self- examination.

First, mediocrity.  No man becomes a priest hoping that he will live his vocation by just getting by. He sacrifices many things in the hope of serving others and of fulfilling the plan of God for his life.  Settling for mediocrity just doesn’t fit that logic. But it can happen that, even in the midst of being a selfless priest who is dedicated to serving God’s people, he can neglect the difficult task of becoming a more effective leader.

As I already mentioned, many are wary of leadership and team development. My experience has shown me precisely the opposite result. In developing a more cohesive team for example, one which enjoys a high degree of trust, openness, and clarity, staffs get better at the most important things, things that God wants us to do such as creating a hospitable parish community and accompanying people in discipleship; things that take time and which are more difficult than simply running programs.

Furthermore, such teams enjoy a profound internal change: they become more honest, loving, and united communities, where tendencies towards isolation, kingdom-building and selfishness are corrected.  Work becomes more energizing and fun as teams are more focused on what’s most important, and can together eliminate obstacles to evangelization.

This concept of cohesive teamwork naturally leads us to the topic of humility. While humility is a fundamental virtue for Christians, practicing it in the workplace or volunteer contexts isn’t easy as it requires vulnerability. By vulnerability, I mean the willingness to be transparent, even painfully so, about weaknesses and mistakes. And while vulnerability can be uncomfortable, it’s as necessary as it is powerful.  Once when training a team, a pastor wanted to encourage his parish staff to embrace vulnerability, and did so in the most effective way: by modelling it. He compared himself to St. Peter, confessing that he was the first one to get excited and respond to something new, but not always the best at following through. It was a great example of healthy vulnerability, rooted in humility, and it liberated the team as a result.

Humility is also increased by another difficult behavior: accountability. To be clear, this is not merely accountability to the leader of the team, but also peer-to-peer accountability. When this behavior is adopted, teams see a decrease in politics and resentment because instead of the leader being the go between, team members approach one another directly. This kind of accountability develops fruitful humility among the members of a team and also provides the basis for an increase in efficiency, effectiveness, and morale.

To wrap up, when we get serious about being a leader in the Church we can grow in ways we may not imagine are possible. If we are open to growing in humility, we can discover powerful ways to avoid the mediocre and thereby flourish.