I have been privileged to work at two institutions dedicated to leadership: the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary. The Augustine Institute instills leadership for the New Evangelization through its Master of Arts programs and its inspiring catechetical series. The University of Mary, America’s Leadership University, embodies servant leadership by rooting its many professional degrees in a vibrant practice of its Catholic mission. A resource that I’ve used to teach leadership at both schools is Alexandre Havard’s book, Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda of Personal Excellence.
I serve as the Director of the Catholic Studies Program at the University of Mary. Before our seniors graduate, they take a course called Great Catholic Figures, providing them models for living their faith in the world. This semester I’ve been working with my students to craft a statement capturing the essence of greatness. We’ve looked at figures as diverse as Alexander the Great, St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More, St. Therese, Abraham Lincoln, and St. John Paul II. It’s surprisingly hard to figure a definition that can encompass conquest, statesmanship, virtue, and spiritual perfection.
Here is our working definition:
Greatness is found ultimately in a largeness of soul which is expressed exteriorly in a way that exceeds the ordinary in order to inspire and lead others.
Without interior greatness no exterior greatness is possible. We look to great men and women as examples to imitate. It is true that we hold up many people who are great at doing some particular thing. Sometimes it’s as simple as being great at throwing a ball. Those who are truly great though, are not great at one thing. They are great at living and we want to be like them, not just in material success but by imitating the source of that greatness.
The key element to greatness is virtue, or excellence of soul. Although there can be excellence in a particular practice or skill, we usually refer to virtue as the habitual perfections of mind and will that lead to excellence of life. Teaching leadership means teaching virtue. And the best way to teach virtue is by imitation. Aristotle asks, where do we find wisdom? He answers that we find it in the wise man. We have to look to great men and women to find the secret to greatness, and the greatest examples are the saints.
Havard’s book gives us great examples, both of those who shaped the world of politics and culture and great ecclesial figures. What unites the figures he presents are two key virtues, seeming opposites, but ones that were drawn together by St. Thomas Aquinas: magnanimity and humility. He defines magnanimity generally as “the striving of the spirit toward great things” and humility “impels man to acknowledge his status as a creature of God.”
Aquinas links together these two seemingly opposed virtues beautifully:
There is in man something great which he possesses through the gift of God; and something defective which accrues to him through the weakness of nature. Accordingly magnanimity makes a man deem himself worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts he holds from God: thus if his soul is endowed with great virtue, magnanimity makes him tend to perfect works of virtue; and the same is to be said of the use of any other good, such as science or external fortune. On the other hand, humility makes a man think little of himself in consideration of his own deficiency (ST II-II, q. 128, a. 3, ad 4).
If leadership requires forming the virtues that cause us both to aspire for great things and place ourselves humbly before God, we are in dire straits. Our problem is that the exact opposite condition is prevalent in our culture: settling for less (not looking to great things) and a culture of narcissism (thinking that we are center of everything). The sociologist Christian Smith sums up the situation best, when examining the life of young adults. He notes that we have a difficult time conceiving of and committing to goods beyond our own personal concerns:
What disappears with the cultural takeover of mass consumerism are shared social identities, organic communities of solidarity, the civic virtues of duty and responsibility, and the learned processes of public dilation, consensus building, and conflict resolution. What takes their place instead are individual-preference formation, acquisitive materialism, entertainment and the sating of desires (Lost in Transition, 217).
Rather than looking upward and outward, we look inward in a way that cuts us off from God and others. Smith finds that we are producing generations steeped in “indifference, focus on the self, and withdraw into the narrower worlds of private concerns and comfortable personal relationships” (214). We are not educating our youth to focus on great things or set their sights above. In short, we are not inspiring leaders.
Stated simply, there is a crucial need for leadership right now. We need to step up, form ourselves, and help form others for the great battle we are facing. What opportunities do we have?
-First, to lead you have to follow. We need to be mentored by others, accept criticism, come to know our faults, and build better habits. Seek out someone you respect, who can hold you accountable and who has the virtues you would like to develop. In addition, there are other resources, which can support you in your growth. One ministry in particular, Fraternus, focuses on forming men into leaders so that they can “mentor boys into virtuous Catholic men.” Families of Character is another organization with a mission to “develop transcendent virtues in families, creating generations of success.”
-Next, you need inspiration. Study the lives of the saints and imitate their virtues. When you read the lives of the saints, it is apparent that they themselves were inspired by the lives of other saints. I mentioned above some of the saints I am teaching in my great figures course: Aquinas, More, Therese, John Paul. They are great models, but there are many others as well. Make friends with the saints, both ones that immediately appeal to you and also who may challenge you as well.
-You also need education. The two leadership institutions I mentioned above are great resources. In particular, the University of Mary has a new virtuous leadership program at the University of Mary, working in cooperation with Alexandre Havard. The program offers either a certificate or MBA concentration, with teaching online or at locations around the country.
-Finally, we have to put all of this into action: Think outside the box. It’s amazing what you can do when you have a compelling vision and the courage to implement it. For example, I just watched a documentary on the creation of the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain, the result of laypeople implementing the Church’s social teaching in innovative ways. I’ve also been inspired by the creation of the Catholic Worker Movement out of Peter Maurin’s vision of culture.
Things in our culture will change only when new leaders emerge. We need to accept the call to action, to receive the mantle of greatness passed down in our tradition, and humbly, yet courageously, discern new ways of shaping our world.