THE RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT: Learn About Corporate Survival From The Master

st francis

Photo: wiki commons

Is this the face of a corporate titan? A man from whom you would seek management tips?A fifth century Christian saint, Benedict of Nursia was a hermit who was pressed into leadership and ended up writing a manual on how to lead, live and pursue goals that resonates today. All of this in the face of challenges that would make the thickest-skinned CEO weep — including months of solitude and attempted poisoning.

Here are the ‘best of’ from The Rule of Saint Benedict. While you will never wield the threat of eternal damnation and have no lash at your disposal no matter how draconian your corporate domain, Benedict would suggest a good leader doesn’t need them.

This cave-dwelling hermit knew all about CUTTHROAT CORPORATE SURVIVAL

Benedict threw off the comforts of his noble birth, took to a desert cave with only an aged servant in tow, and gained such notoriety for his form of spiritual quest he was begged by a local monastery to lead them after their abbot's death. Long story short, he resisted ('he knew their manners differed'), they insisted, he arrived, and, of course, they became so annoyed they tried to poison him. They do not cover that in business school.

Poisoned drink? The cup shattered before reaching his lips. Toxic bread? A raven swoops down and takes it before it enters his mouth. Then, he returned to his cave. Who needed this?

His notoriety for that extra-special-something again created a groundswell entreating him to lead. This time, his moves were more considered, created a company to last that he could lead for a long while. He built his team slowly, with like-minded or complementary souls.

This is corporate survival at its best as far as I am concerned. In his lifetime, Benedict ended up founding not one but twelve communities. And today, centuries later, his Rule is used in religious communities and read for every day, as well as professional, living of a very considered sort. He understood well the value and power of leading well, making expectations clear, and knowing who is on your team, and seeing clearly how to get the best out of them and making them the best they can be.

Hard to believe this was written with one foot in a cave, centuries ago, and exclusively for men of god.

  • He knows that whatever lack of profit the master of the house shall find in the sheep, will be laid to the blame of the shepherd. Be able to respond to a variety of situations and what will yield the best result and, remember, if they screw up, you will be the one who looks bad.
  • Show them all that is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words - to intelligent disciples by words, but show the divine precepts to the dull and simple by his works Do as you ask, instruct using the means that makes most sense to the person to whom you are talking.
  • Make no distinctions of persons...let him not love one more than another, unless it be one whom he findeth more exemplary in good works and obedience...impose a uniform discipline for all according to merit. Nepotism doesn't help or work, be the boss that values quality over connections.
  • Let him so adjust and adapt himself to everyone - to one gentleness of speech, to another by reproofs, and to still another by entreaties, to each one according to his bent and understanding. The best manager needs to and can be a different boss to different kinds of people.

ON DECISIONS: Many give input, but what the boss says is final

If it is a make-it-or-break-it moment, get absolutely every body in the group together. For more local, less crucial choices, Benedict says to consult 'only' a few of the elders.

Listen, in particular, to the young, as it is through them, he writes, that god often speaks. We can interpret this as saying it is from the young we hear ideas unburdened by history, biases built over the years, or grudges irrelevant.

He was not, lest you think otherwise, advocating some pinko-socialist-love fest, either. Final words come from the abbot. He made absolutely explicit the expectation that, whatever decision is made, what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint.

Get the help you need without creating a power-hungry monster lurking in the wings. In Benedict's world, there were two types of Number Twos, deans and Priors. A rose by any other name will smell just as sweet, or create discord, sow discontent just as quickly, as the case may be.

On the one hand are the deans, who are asked to supervise a finite and well-defined group or task. Their work directly supports the abbot. They are those whom the Abbot may safely trust to share his burden. Let them not be chosen for their rank, but for the merit of their life and their wisdom and knowledge.

On the other is the Prior. Benedict doesn't even both defining what it is the Prior might do or be, instead opening the chapter thus, It often happeneth indeed, that grave scandals arise...out of the appointment of the Prior; since there are some who, puffed up with the wicked spirit of pride and thinking themselves to be second Abbots, set up a despotic rule, foster scandals, and excite quarrels in the community...and his thoughts suggest to him that he is now exempt from the authority of the Abbot.'

Benedict's advise? Skip the position that begs for abuse and power-grabs, get the support you need from those tasked only with support and executing what needs to be done. Unless, of course, you'd rather have a puppermaster, leading from behind the curtain.

ON MANAGEMENT: You need to show new employees the point of every task

Benedict makes clear the respect he has for what the Buddhists call the 'beginner's mind.'

He continues in this vein by recognising you manage the young differently than you might a more experienced staff person. He states quite clearly, the young do not always understand the gravity of the situation or, even, the point of what is being asked. He advises leaders to bear this, among other things, in mind when teaching or correcting faults, never forgetting the goal that is a staff that is made up of people moulded to be what you need them to be. Impatience, unrealistic expectations will not produce an effective and confident person down the line.

There is a bit of the carrot and just as much of the stick in Benedict's world, more of the former than you'd expect and the latter executed with vastly more reason than I would have guessed.

The recalcitrants, the chronically late, the kvetches, and when faced any sort of internal strife (there is a chapter called That No One Presume to Strike Another), Benedict does not go straight for the switch.

  • Let the Abbot act like a prudent physician. After he hath applied soothing lotions, ointments of admonitions, medicaments of the Holy Scriptures, in other words, explain the thinking behind expectations
  • Isolate those who need to consider their actions, unless to do so there might be one who would go back to sleep, indulge in vain gossip, and give a 'chance to the devil'
  • Only then does he dismiss from the community, as the Apostle saith: 'Put away the evil one from among you' (1 Cor 5:13)...lest one diseased sheep infect the whole flock.

ON MANAGEMENT: Ask the Impossible

Ask for the best of everyone; risk, even, asking the impossible.

Benedict says to the one asked to receive the order of him who commandeth with all meekness and obedience. If however, he see that the gravity of the task is altogether beyond his strength, let him quietly and seasonably submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior, without pride, protest, or dissent.

In return, the good leader must be able to hear the well-articulated issue and either adapt the assignment or take the opportunity to raise the worker's expectations of themselves.

Benedict clearly never forgot the early days of poisonings eluded.

As the chapter title suggests, he was not a big fan of even the faintest whiff of worker solidarity.

Let it (defence of another) not be attempted by the monks in any way; because such conduct may give rise to very grave scandal. If anyone overstep this rule, let him be severely punished. End of chapter.

If you are justifiably intrigued, go here to buy the book from Amazon.

Now learn from another master

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Tagged In

features warroom-us