One of the most discussed topics in organizations today is the subject of “leadership.” There are books and TED talks galore telling us all how to be great leaders.
Some of them provide good insights, but notwithstanding all of the material out there on this subject, many people still have a fundamental misunderstanding about what leadership is and what role followers play in leadership.
When I heard Sunday’s Mass readings, I could not help but reflect on how they can give us guidance about leadership in ministry and in business.
The first reading from Sunday’s Mass was from Isaiah 5:1-7. In that passage God laments his people, who are represented as a vineyard in the story, saying: “What more could be done for my vineyard that I did not do?”
God talks about how he took care of the vineyard by spading it, building a winepress in it, and planting the choicest vines in it, and yet, instead of producing grapes, the vineyard produced “rotten grapes” (the reading of the day on the USCCB’s website says “wild grapes,” but the phrase used in the NABRE translation says “rotten grapes”).
So what what do “rotten grapes” have to do with leadership?
I believe the rotten (or wild) grapes are disobedient and unwilling followers. No one can accuse God of being a bad leader. He lists all of the things that he did to lead Israel to himself in this passage. Yet, Israel did not submit to him.
We also recall in Exodus 32 how within a short period of time after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt they worshipped a golden calf. God refers to the Israelites as a “stiff-necked” people and threatens to consume them with fire and start all over again with a new nation.
Moses was not a bad leader. It was not his fault that his people worshipped a golden calf while he was away. He spoke directly with God and received God’s graces to lead Israel. He had all of the tools he needed to lead Israel. The Israelites simply refused to submit out of pride.
In Romans 13:1-7 Saint Paul says “[l]et every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.”
These passages tell me that sometimes good leaders simply have disobedient and unwilling followers, and nothing the leader can do will fix that. The next time we want to blame or criticize our leaders, maybe we should ask ourselves whether we have been good followers.
As good as any leader may be, it is up to their followers to submit to the leader’s leadership. This idea of submission and docility is at the very core of our relationship with God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls our faith an “obedience of faith” and recognizes that the gifts of the Holy Spirit make us docile to follow his promptings. CCC 144, 1830, 1831.
This means that God calls us, but it is up to us to respond and submit to him.
Again, God is not a bad leader. If submission to God, the Creator of the Universe, is necessary for believers to be led by him, then so must the followers of human leaders submit to their human leaders in order to be led.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, the road of leadership is a two-way street. Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew 21:31-43 also talks about a vineyard.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus shares a parable with the people telling them how the landowner (God) rented the vineyard (Israel) to his tenants (the Israelite leaders) and how the tenants beat and stoned all of the landowner’s servants (prophets) and killed his son (a prophesy of Jesus’ Crucifixion).
When Jesus asked the people listening to the parable what the landowner would do with the tenants, the people responded “[h]e will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.”
So what do “wretched tenants” have to do with leadership?
This Bible passage speaks directly to the chief priests and the Pharisees about their poor and prideful stewardship over Israel (the vineyard), but I believe that this passage is applicable to all of our leadership activities since all leaders are also stewards.
Even CEOs of private companies are stewards because employees never “belong” to the CEO and the CEO has direct stewardship over employee compensation, benefits, safety, etc., and also indirect stewardship over their families who are significantly affected by the employee’s relationship with the company.
Even though the second reading from Sunday’s Mass does not explicitly mention stewardship or leadership, I believe it ties in to the other two readings and provides valuable guidance on the proper behavior for all leaders.
Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. – Philemon 4:6-9
Based on the above, leaders (stewards):
- Must not be anxious about their duties and decisions;
- Must pray and be thankful always;
- Allow God to bring peace to their hearts and minds;
- Should exercise and think about the virtues;
- Should do what they have been taught by God.
Leaders must be virtuous and competent, but followers must be submissive and obedient. Both should be aware of the sin of pride and should exercise humility.
Followers who do not trust or submit to leaders who hold legitimate positions in their organizations may want to ask themselves whether they are really being good followers.
Leaders with unwilling followers may be bad leaders; if so, they will not last very long. On the other hand, leaders with unwilling followers may be good leaders with a vision that no one else believes in yet, and that is why they are leaders in the first place.
A brief list of what leadership is (and is not):
- Leadership is not making everyone happy. It is impossible to make everyone happy. If everyone is happy, then it is probably because you are not leading.
- Leadership is not ignoring problems. When problems develop, leaders hold themselves and the other people in their organization accountable.
- Leadership is love, but it is also truth. Even if the truth is difficult. Keep in mind that love without truth is false and truth without love is cruelty.
- Leadership is staying the course. There will always be critics. Not all plans work out as intended and failure is an opportunity to learn.
- Leadership requires the avoidance of pride and the exercise of humility by leaders and followers.
- Leadership requires willing and submissive followers. The parties need to meet in the middle.
A final thought: The fate of the “rotten grapes” and the “wretched tenants”
Disobedient and unwilling followers will be unprotected, they will suffer chaos and invasion, and they will not receive the proper sustenance to grow:
[T]ake away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it.
Poor leaders (stewards)* will lose their leadership positions (possibly forever) and their responsibilities will be given to someone else:
He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.
*Poor leaders may be incompetent or even tyrants, but they may also simply be indecisive, wishy-washy, focus too much on their critics, or try to make everyone happy.