Leadership and Character by Cardinal Collins

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Cardinal Thomas Collins at the National Club in Toronto on Dec. 5, 2012.

There are many external marks of leadership — and in my case I have quite a spectacular set: the scarlet robes of a cardinal are hard to beat for dramatic effect. But whether it be a crown, or scarlet robes, or the corner office, the signs of leadership are simply meant to be helpful signs that allow the leader to serve the community: like a bright flag that by its visual prominence can provide a rallying point for the troops in battle.

Signs are vital in life. Language itself is made up of verbal signs that allow us to communicate. Signs, including signs of authority, are meant to lead us beyond ourselves and to think of the great cause in which we are engaged; signs always point us from where we are to where we are meant to be; they always indicate a reality greater than themselves, and so can have a powerful and necessary effect. But we are in deep trouble if we become enchanted by them. That is why amid the splendour of a papal coronation in days of yore a person would come up to the Pope every few minutes, light a bit of flax, and as it disappeared in a puff of smoke would say: “Thus passes the glory of this world."

Leadership, if it is to be fruitful, must be based on character and not be defined by the outward signs that accompany it. They are simply tools, often useful tools, to advance the deeper purpose. We are all in deep trouble when, as too often happens in this fallen world, people get addicted to the signs of authority but do not attend to the deeper requirement of a virtuous life, a life founded on the inner substance that is character.

I have mentioned the little ego puncturing ceremony that used to be a part of the papal coronation. Beyond that, we should value the experience of inauguration rites, which are designed to remind both the one entering into leadership and the community he or she is to serve of the substance of their mission. In some ways these rites are like a wedding: though what matters really is the marriage and not the wedding, the words of the wedding rite provide guidance for the conduct of the marriage.

So too with ordination rites, which I have occasion to celebrate regularly. Before a person enters into spiritual leadership as a deacon, priest or bishop, he must lie flat on the floor while the community asks all the angels and saints to join with them in  praying that he will be found faithful in fulfilling the office committed to him.

The royal psalms in the Old Testament were used at the anointing of the king, to place before him the model of how he should exercise leadership as a servant of God, responsible for the community. We know that most of the actual kings did not pay attention, but nonetheless the words do provide the path to follow.

So it is good to attend all kinds of inauguration rites: baptisms, weddings, ordinations — but also the civil equivalents in business and politics. They help the community place the right vision of leadership before the individual entering into it, and before the community itself.

The most important title of the Pope is “Servant of the Servants of God.” Leadership must be based upon a humble desire to serve the members of the community. That title of the Pope, like his other main title “Pontifex,” or “bridge builder,” can serve as a guide for all who are called to a position of responsibility for others or some form of leadership. Effective and fruitful leadership means being a pontifex, a bridge builder, who seeks to overcome the divisions in the community, for only a community that is united can attain the purpose that gives it meaning. In practice, one of the most difficult and at times discouraging, but ultimately rewarding, aspects of leadership is bridging the chasms that divide the members of the community, and seeking to build bridges with the wider community. Leadership is always, in some way, in the service of the unity that is essential for the life of a community.

But the key is character, and that means overcoming the ego, which positions of leadership can puff up, in the service of the servants of God. True leadership of any kind always requires a forgetfulness of self, a willingness to sacrifice for the community. We all know of the rule of the sea that the captain must be the last to leave the ship, and when that rule is broken, we see manifest a failure in leadership. A military officer must care for the troops.

What is needed is character, which means among other things a willingness to sacrifice our own interests for the common good of the people entrusted to our care and for the greater cause which we serve.

That means, of course, that each person in the community needs to stop regularly to understand more deeply the purpose of the community. As it says in the Old Testament, without vision the people perish, and one of the key roles of the leader of a community is to know deeply the vision that guides it and to articulate that for the benefit of the whole community. That too is a servant role: to serve the members of the community by helping everyone to grow in dedication to the common vision that gives meaning and purpose to life.

The great enemy is ego. Ego is, to some degree, essential: everyone needs a solid sense of self. “God made me, and He doesn’t make trash.” The drive that impels us to excellence, and is often spurred by not so worthy motives, such as fame, the approval of others, wealth and so on is not inherently wrong and in fact can accomplish much good. Some of that is needed in a person in leadership. It was said of the Duke of Wellington that his troops were fortunate that he did not have much self doubt.

Although a healthy ego is good, and provides some of the drive necessary for effectiveness in life and in leadership, when leaders get drunk on ego, as can easily happen in any community, then all of us will suffer.

When there is an excess of ego, people can either seek to much control of others, or be under the bewitching illusion that they are in control. We can totally control only that which is not worth controlling. Whenever a person is caught in the ego-driven illusion of control, he or she is not capable of leading the community to greatness, for that always means motivating as well as guiding all of the members of the community to advance the mission of the community. The most fruitful leadership always involves not just delegating, but coaching others to assume real, creative and effective leadership themselves.

This is the model of leadership enunciated in William Oncken’s book Managing Management Time, and is  exemplified in Pope John Paul II’s way of developing the World Youth Days. I was on the committee of bishops responsible for the World Youth Day in Toronto inn 2002. The Pope had set out several very clear principles that we had to respect, but he did not try to impose his will on the whole enterprise or to micro-manage. As long as we followed the basic principles, there was an immense amount of creative freedom which allowed the World Youth Day to become far more than any one person, even the Pope, could have imagined or produced. That is a model of strong, but ego free, leadership.

The Lord of the Rings provides us with another vision of true leadership. There must be no dependence on the debilitating power that the ring offers, to make things happen without sacrifice, to give the ring bearer control. Those who succumb to that temptation, even seeking to do so in the cause of good, wither away. No: it is through the self-sacrificial fellowship of the little hobbits and their friends that the power of the dark Lord, that paragon of ego-driven control, is destroyed.

In our relationships with one another we need to invite love, and share, with the wisdom of the candle: hold in and it goes out, let go and it grows brighter.

A person wrapped up in himself makes a very small package. Servant of the servants of God is a more spiritually rewarding approach and one which allows for the flourishing of the whole community, for the ego-driven leader brings to bear on the problems we face simply the talents that are within, while discouraging others. No one has all the answers.

This is why deference can be dangerous; it is said that in most air crashes caused by pilot error, the chief pilot is the one at the controls: the co-pilot may be hesitant to suggest that they seem to heading into a mountain.

Perhaps a good model for action, balancing consultation and decisiveness, is found in the Rule of St. Benedict: when any important decision is to be made, the Abbot will call together the whole community and ask the opinion of each, beginning with the youngest, and then will decide what to do.

If we were merely isolated individuals, we could simply live on our own. But no man is an island entire unto himself. We are by nature members of communities, and so we need in our interdependence that leadership which helps promote the common good.

It is the nature of leadership, of whatever form it takes, that it is founded on a care for the common good — not simply the good of self.

Authority is needed, for we are a community. And we need decisions, for the common good. A bishop should not exercise authority 95 per cent of the time, but that other five per cent he must not fail to exercise authority.

The way in which this is done can vary: one can be authoritarian, consultative or collaborative — and many other models. Benedict says consult and then act. But there are more modern models for doing this in which the whole community is more fully involved in decision making.

Influence is an equally important form of leadership, but more subtle. We need the influence of leaders who will help us be what God wants us to be, who promote the common good by promoting the good through gentle and often invisible influence.  As authority is the skeleton of the community, so influence is the breath and the blood. What do we need: skeleton or blood? We need both. A skeleton alone is nothing but dry bones; blood alone is a puddle on the floor. We are called to exercise leadership in society often more by influence than by authority — and often influence is more effective.

Consider Gandhi — who never occupied any office of authority, but whose influence was enormous. Consider the saints — e.g. Mother Teresa — whose authority was within her community, but whose influence was worldwide.

Both forms of leadership are essential, and both depend on the character of the leader, and on the recognition by the community that the leader is a person of integrity, who cares more for them and for the mission on which they are engaged, than on self. If that essential element is missing, both forms of leadership are ineffective.

The leader must be oriented beyond himself or herself. The leader is a servant of the servants of God, servant of the common good, servant of the Lord. And the danger is that the leader can become self-absorbed.

So almost a requirement for all leadership, whether of influence or authority, is the experience of failure, or frailty, of personal sin. This is the grounding, like the chains that hang from gasoline trucks.

The pathway to leadership is marked by failure, and by a deep consciousness of a need for the strength from the Lord, and of inter-dependence with others. A leader isolated in excellence is headed for disaster, and the community as well.

So we need to root our own experience of leadership in a repentant spirit, and in an appreciation of limitation and frailty. When that is lost, we are in a world of illusion and that is plain dangerous: the blanket is over the windshield.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This can be true of authority leadership — obviously — but also of influence leadership. The tentacles of illusion are penetrating.

Be willing to admit failure, and to learn from it.

It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection — short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.

I think this is an instruction which may be of great practical use to persons like ourselves. It is easy to have vague ideas what perfection is, which serve well enough to talk about, when we do not intend to aim at it; but as soon as a person really desires and sets about seeking it himself, he is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some kind of direction towards the practice of it.

We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the ordinary, or especially heroic — not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings — but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound — we mean the  opposite to imperfect.

He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection.

I insist on this because it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say: do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.