The Benefit of Benedict’s Benediction:
The Enduring Influence of Prayer
By Frank Marangos D.Min., Ed.D.
“More things are wrought by prayer
than this world dreams of.”
~Alfred, Lord Tennyson
To a society that unreservedly celebrates positions of power, prestige, and performance the recent announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation indicates the possibility of personal failure, infirmity and/or scandal. “Why else would a leader with global citation, cachet, and clout abdicate his position of buff?” What the secular media often fails to recognize, however, is that the most enduring source of influence is not derived from the glamourized positions of paparazzi-styled power-brokers, but actually from the modesty of private prayer! Consequently, although the Patriarch to over 1.2 billion Catholic Christians acknowledges, with full freedom, his physical limitations to “adequately fulfill the Petrine ministry,” his pledge to “devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer” is, in fact, the noblest form of leadership one could ever hope to provide!
With the news of his sudden resignation, Pope Benedict joins the company of a handful of Roman Catholic Pontiffs who, throughout history, willfully withdrew from the highest position of influence of the Western Christian Church. According to Vatican experts, the historical circumstances surrounding the departures of previous ecclesial defenders of Saint Peter’s apostolic cathedra had generally “little to do with age or health.” Rather, the resignations of most were due to “political, venal, and licentious intrigues.” By contrast, the leave-taking of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, after an eight-year tenure (2005-13), exemplifies his love for the Church and, his willingness to remain at whatever personal cost, Her prayerful servant!
Church historians suggest that Gregory XII was the last pope to officially resign. He did so in 1415 in the midst of a leadership crisis known as the Great Western Schism wherein three isolated groups sought sole ecclesial control of the Roman Church. Gregory’s humble offer of resignation afforded the religious factions a generous opportunity to unify around a newly elected and mutually recognized leader. Among the remaining examples, only Pope Celestine V could be characterized as having left his office for a similar unselfish reason. After only five months as the Bishop of Rome, Celestine issued a solemn decree declaring it possible that a pope can resign, and then promptly did so. Recognizing his administrative limitations, he subsequently lived as a hermit and was later canonized after his death as a saint of the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict’s retirement will formally occur on Thursday evening, February 28, 2013, coincidentally on the feast day of Saint Hilarius, a most revered fifth-century pope. Unfortunately, while his departure may resemble those of Gregory and Celestine, contemporary pundits will attribute his resignation to increasing signs of weakness and fatigue. Most assuredly, apart from setting the stage for nostalgic historical recollections, Benedict’s resignation will reignite the passionate debate between staunch and more liberal-minded Catholics who advocate Catholicism’s need to broaden its global appeal by loosening restrictions on celibacy, birth control, and the ordination of women. Nonetheless, the Pope’s departure provides a valuable opportunity to focus on an important distinction that often exists between secular and faith-based models of leadership, namely the nature and influence of personal prayer.
Leadership is currently a popular and much debated topic of books, articles, hotel seminars, and requisite multimedia training merchandise, in the pursuit of competent leaders to guide organizations through economic, political, and cultural difficulties is ubiquitous. Unlike the scarcity of qualified candidates, however, the long list of possible definitions, axioms, and paradigms give witness to the countless arguments levied by leadership experts for its most effective method of employ. Nevertheless, a careful comparison of the most prevalent of estimations reduces the quarrel to only two primary juxtapositions – the “positional” and “inspirational” sources of a leader’s influence.
Essentially, “positional” leadership may be characterized as the responsibility of guiding others through the intrinsic authority of a designated position. “Inspirational” leadership, on the other hand, focuses on the effort of motivating rather than coercing others to think or act in a desired way. While both play a vital role in the legacy of a leader’s tenure, Pope Benedict’s resignation provides an opportunity to both draw clear distinctions between them and add another important spiritual element to the mix – prayer.
In and of themselves, positions of power cannot promise the bearing of enduring influence. On the contrary, history is littered with biographic profiles that unfortunately illustrate the impotence of inept leaders who arrogantly failed to graciously end or, at least, move to the next chapter of their professional or pastoral vocations. Unfortunately, although many formally remained in their respective positions, they were, for all practical purposes, superannuated! Such tragic tales exemplify how a positional leader can be in a state of sequestration and yet remain entirely ignorant to the actual fact of his/her ineffectiveness.
Hollywood producers, TV writers, and charismatic business personalities like Donald Trump often portray leadership in terms of position, power, and profit. On the other hand, authors such as Jim Collins, Stephen Covey and John Maxwell, insist that leadership is the influence of appropriate vision. Others like Max De Pree, Robert Greenleaf, and Patrick M. Lencioni argue for a more service-centered personal approach. Finally, popular writers like Oswald Sanders and Henry Blackaby, respectively, presents the key principles of leadership in terms of both temporal as well as spiritual domains. Significantly, by fusing these differing perspectives, leadership emerges as a verb (inspiration), and not a noun (position). Since influence is, consequently, understood as an effect rather than a contrivance of power and citation, the leadership of individuals such as Pope Benedict can continue long after their specific titles and positions are proffered to others.
According to John Maxwell, influence increases along a continuum of five interrelated stages: (a) position, (b) permission, (c) production, (d) re-production, and (e) pinnacle. The author understands position as merely the entry-point of a leader’s career. More often than naught, followers adhere to the directives of a “positional” leader because they have to, not because they have the confidence or feel the inspiration to do so. Consequently, if leaders desire to be effective they must strive to nurture the establishment of “permission-based relationships.” Leaders at this second level are commonly not interested in protecting and preserving their position, but in building and sustaining authentic associations.
Only after a leader has earned constituent trust and permission can he/she begin to enter the third level of influence, namely, “production.” Maxwell cautions that satisfaction of establishing pleasant working environments often lulls some leaders into overlooking their primary responsibility of achieving results. It should be emphasized, however, that only through the gain of personal and professional credibility can the hint of enduring influence begin to appear.
The positional power inherent in the Papal Throne does not have the ability to generate the kind of influence that can endure time and term. On the contrary, like any other leader, the tenure of the most respected of papal office holder will always be viewed as the one that has demonstrated the desire and ability to successfully develop and empower others. Herein lies the importance of personally investing in the reproduction of future leaders that, in the end, has the potential of improving an organization’s overall performance. Tragically, as few leaders have the confidence to distribute their authority in such a way, entities struggle to find adequate successors when top-level leaders vacate their posts.
The fifth and highest level of leadership, is what Maxwell refers to as the “pinnacle.” While few successfully climb through the previous four stages, “Pinnacle Leaders” are uncommon. Apart from demonstrating insight, intuition, integrity and the willingness to recognize the leadership potential in others, Pinnacle Leaders must demonstrate the ability of developing others to the point where they themselves are capable of analogous replication. This, for Maxwell, is the most difficult leadership task of all as it also generates the most enduring of legacies – the development of Pinnacle institutions like the Church. As a result, Pinnacle leaders transcend their position, their organization, and sometimes history itself!
Apart from the aforementioned, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal are best know for their advocacy of leadership’s spiritual foundations. In the most recent edition (2011) of their insightful book, Leading With Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit, the two respected management authors suggest that it is time that leaders “return to ancient spiritual basics and reclaim the enduring human capacity that gives our lives passion and purpose.” Accordingly, Leading With Soul chronicles the story of an executive named Steve and his quest for the deeper meaning of his role as a leader. Through his ongoing conversation with a retired business leader named Maria, readers are provided a stirring exploration of soul, spirit, and faith as the primary spiritual foundations of inspirational influence. Finally, by rediscovering the importance of prayer, Steve comes to terms with his “true” self and the meaning of leadership.
The message of Leading With Soul is vividly clear. Leaders with “positional” power must use the authority of their respective office with caution, as their ability to exert influence will one day expire. When such leaders face organizational succession, or the specter of resignation due to failure, infirmity, and/or scandal, their loss of office assuredly triggers feelings of personal bitterness and anxiety. Since influence is so closely tied to position, such leadership elite somberly fear the twilight of their careers! They dolefully covet the embossed standard of their leadership titles, fearing the loss of personal identity, and the inevitability of having the impact of their legacy gradually fade and disappear. Conversely, the influence of “inspirational” leaders persists long after they disappear from the scene. Such individuals are exemplars of servant-leadership whose influence, genuineness, and accomplishments endure far beyond the memory of term and time.
While the urge to choose Benedict’s successor from a long list of youthful aspirants with better management and political skills to extend the reach of the Catholic Church to new constituencies is enticing, the College of Cardinals might be better served by searching for a candidate who, likewise, demonstrates the core competencies of humble authenticity, doctrinal orthodoxy and, like Steve, the spiritual activity of intense prayer. Herein, lies both the power and promise of Pope Benedict’s Benediction as only a leader of ardent prayer can have the modesty of self-understanding and the confidence to develop others who may, in turn, one day overshadow them.
Apart from dealing with the global and ecclesial scandals that occurred during his eight-year Vatican tenure, it is indeed a certainty that Pope Benedict spent much time and effort praying for insight, inspiration and strength to tender his resignation. Benedict has been characterized as an individual who has always put the interest of the Church first and viewed himself as Her servant. His resignation demonstrates the truth of this assessment. While he may indeed be too frail to physically lead, Pope Benedict’s pledge of providing the spiritual influence of continuous prayer might, consequently, be his most enduring legacy.
Resign, retire, or replicate? As forty percent (40%) of the nation’s workforce will be poised to personally provide an answer to this question in 2020, the news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation provides a valuable lesson to those who exclusively define leadership in terms of its pragmatic capacity. The message is simple yet profound. The influence of leadership does not have to end because of age, frailty or disability. What is important is the honesty to recognize the appropriate time to step aside, as wise leaders seem to always know when to gracefully exit the stage – often to acclaim, rather than to shame.
Abraham Lincoln, the 14th President of the United States, emphasized the importance of prayer in his ability to lead. “I have been driven many times to my knees,” he said, “by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” Perhaps something similar is stirring in the heart, mind, and soul of Pope Benedict. Sent literally to his knees by age and physical exhaustion, he has nowhere else to go but to lean on the firm footings of prayer. Benedict’s retirement should, therefore, not be characterized as a desire for “lazy boy” religious relaxation, as it most certainly will not be a time to recline, but a season to incline towards God. It will not be an occasion to lean back – but, rather, a time for the beloved pontiff to lean forward towards the Lord he has and vows to continue to serve. Humanity is most fortunate to have such an individual living in its midst, as it will most certainly continue to receive the furtive subsidy of his inspirational service.
This is the benefit of Benedict’s Benediction – the most enduring influence of his prayer-centered leadership!