Catholic Voices - Learning humble leadership from the saints

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Leadership is an important topic, but it continues to be elusive.

As a society, we’re always on the lookout for good leaders. We want to find them, mold them and put them in positions to lead us. And we’re always searching for good leadership models and templates to follow, because the path to good and effective leadership is not clear and easy. We look to CEOs, presidents, generals and others who have carved out a path toward good leadership.

But did you realize that some of the best examples of successful leadership are actually found in the lives of the saints? We know the saints are always there for us — giving us guidance, interceding for us, praying for us — but we often overlook their examples of leadership. And that’s too bad, because the call to become a saint — which applies to us all — is also a call be a leader.

BJ Gonzalvo
BJ Gonzalvo

Even if we don’t think of ourselves as leaders, we are called to lead those close to us — family members, friends, coworkers — toward Christ. What better models of leadership could we have than the saints who have responded to the call to holiness as well as the call to lead God’s people? So let’s look to the saints for some of the leadership principles we should follow today.

One leadership trait that we often struggle to find is humility. Humility gets a bad rap in today’s society. The word itself sounds so much like humiliation. There’s a lot of personal horn-tooting and amped up self-promotion going around. And, unfortunately, we don’t place a high value on humility when we look for leaders. Many people actually seem to regard humility as antithetical to leadership.

But humility is key to effective leadership. Take, for example, the humble leadership of St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa. When they heard God’s call, they responded with genuine humility. When people asked why God picked them, their reply was that God had chosen the lowliest and the weakest so that people would know that their achievements were possible only because of God. They wanted to make sure that it was God who got all the glory, not them. And many people were drawn to their work and their leadership because of their humility.

Ancient Greek philosophers said that humility is a meta-virtue — it serves as the foundation for all other virtues, such as wisdom, compassion, courage and forgiveness. Mother Teresa, whose life was an illustration of that principle, said: “Humility is the mother of all virtues: purity, charity and obedience.”

Humility is essential if we want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our ultimate model of leadership. Christ humbly came down from his kingdom in heaven to raise up the lowly. As Jesus told his disciples: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

Some recent leadership research studies are finding that leaders are more powerful when they are humble. St. Augustine once said that if we wish to rise, we must begin by descending: “You plan to build a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” Humility allows leaders to put others before themselves. They can squash their own ego so that they can focus not on themselves but on the needs of others.

Humility allows us to see what the proud have difficulty seeing — our limitations and weaknesses. To gain the trust of followers, we must humbly accept that we have limitations and recognize that we need help, that we need to grow and improve, that we are all in this together and that we must work together to accomplish the work before us.

Let’s allow the virtue of humility to lead to our eternal destination, along with our brothers and sisters in Christ. As Pope Francis said in a recent homily: “Humility is the way to holiness.”

BJ Gonzalvo, Ph.D., is the author of Lessons in Leadership from the Saints and a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Bothell. His website is  

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Northwest Catholic - September 2017