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Passion, People and Principles

The Rule of St. Benedict

post # 472 — December 3, 2007 — a General, Managing post

At a seminar I conducted last Friday, the topic of enforcing standards came up — as it always does. And, again as always, I made the point that the courage to enforce standards by asking otherwise productive people to leave is both essential and scarce. We also discussed the charcateristics of an effective manager of professionals.

Over the weekend, I heard from Adam Simon, Managing Director of Business Optimisation Services at PRG-Schultz Europe. He wrote:

Many thanks for your words of inspiration at last Friday’s seminar. Before going into business 25 years ago I spent some time as a Benedictine monk and have often tried to draw on that experience in my business life.

As you were leaving, I asked if you had read the rule of St Benedict and you said no. I think you will love parts of it, especially two chapters that I draw your attention to for a starter: Chapter 2 what type of man the Abbot should be. I do not think that in all management writing, pace Drucker, Peters and all the gurus, there is a better description of what a good manager should be. Chapter 28, Of Those Who Having Often Been Corrected Do Not Amend, which follows your principle that people have to be pulling in the same direction or leave. Whilst many of the specifics in the rule have no relevance, the spirit is totally modern with its understanding of human frailty and the difficulties of living with others.

Here is a link to a translation of the rule into English (slightly old fashioned language, better modern translations do exist but I could not find them on the web).


What Kind of Man the Abbot Ought to Be

The Abbot who is worthy to be over a monastery ought always to be mindful of what he is called, and make his works square with his name of


. For he is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, when he is called by his name, according to the saying of the Apostle: “You have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry Abba (Father)” (Rom 8:15). Therefore, the Abbot should never teach, prescribe, or command (which God forbid) anything contrary to the laws of the Lord; but his commands and teaching should be instilled like a leaven of divine justice into the minds of his disciples.

Let the Abbot always bear in mind that he must give an account in the dread judgment of God of both his own teaching and of the obedience of his disciples. And let the Abbot know that whatever lack of profit the master of the house shall find in the sheep, will be laid to the blame of the shepherd. On the other hand he will be blameless, if he gave all a shepherd’s care to his restless and unruly flock, and took all pains to correct their corrupt manners; so that their shepherd, acquitted at the Lord’s judgment seat, may say to the Lord with the Prophet: “I have not hid Thy justice within my heart. I have declared Thy truth and Thy salvation” (Ps 39[40]:11). “But they contemning have despised me” (Is 1:2; Ezek 20:27). Then at length eternal death will be the crushing doom of the rebellious sheep under his charge.

When, therefore, anyone taketh the name of Abbot he should govern his disciples by a twofold teaching; namely, he should show them all that is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words; explain the commandments of God to intelligent disciples by words, but show the divine precepts to the dull and simple by his works. And let him show by his actions, that whatever he teacheth his disciples as being contrary to the law of God must not be done, “lest perhaps when he hath preached to others, he himself should become a castaway” (1 Cor 9:27), and he himself committing sin, God one day say to him: “Why dost thou declare My justices, and take My covenant in thy mouth? But thou hast hated discipline, and hast cast My words behind thee” (Ps 49[50]:16-17). And: “Thou who sawest the mote in thy brother’s eye, hast not seen the beam in thine own” (Mt 7:3).

Let him make no distinction of persons in the monastery. Let him not love one more than another, unless it be one whom he findeth more exemplary in good works and obedience. Let not a free-born be preferred to a freedman, unless there be some other reasonable cause. But if from a just reason the Abbot deemeth it proper to make such a distinction, he may do so in regard to the rank of anyone whomsoever; otherwise let everyone keep his own place; for whether bond or free, we are all one in Christ (cf Gal 3:28; Eph 6:8), and we all bear an equal burden of servitude under one Lord, “for there is no respect of persons with God” (Rom 2:11). We are distinguished with Him in this respect alone, if we are found to excel others in good works and in humility. Therefore, let him have equal charity for all, and impose a uniform discipline for all according to merit.

For in his teaching the Abbot should always observe that principle of the Apostle in which he saith: “Reprove, entreat, rebuke” (2 Tm 4:2), that is, mingling gentleness with severity, as the occasion may call for, let him show the severity of the master and the loving affection of a father. He must sternly rebuke the undisciplined and restless; but he must exhort the obedient, meek, and patient to advance in virtue. But we charge him to rebuke and punish the negligent and haughty. Let him not shut his eyes to the sins of evil-doers; but on their first appearance let him do his utmost to cut them out from the root at once, mindful of the fate of Heli, the priest of Silo (cf 1 Sam 2:11-4:18). The well-disposed and those of good understanding, let him correct at the first and second admonition only with words; but let him chastise the wicked and the hard of heart, and the proud and disobedient at the very first offense with stripes and other bodily punishments, knowing that it is written: “The fool is not corrected with words” (Prov 29:19). And again: “Strike thy son with the rod, and thou shalt deliver his soul from death” (Prov 23:14).

The Abbot ought always to remember what he is and what he is called, and to know that to whom much hath been entrusted, from him much will be required; and let him understand what a difficult and arduous task he assumeth in governing souls and accommodating himself to a variety of characters. 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 — that he not only suffer no loss in his flock, but may rejoice in the increase of a worthy fold.

Above all things, that the Abbot may not neglect or undervalue the welfare of the souls entrusted to him, let him not have too great a concern about fleeting, earthly, perishable things; but let him always consider that he hath undertaken the government of souls, of which he must give an account. And that he may not perhaps complain of the want of earthly means, let him remember what is written: “Seek ye first the




and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33). And again: “There is no want to them that fear Him” (Ps 33[34]:10). And let him know that he who undertaketh the government of souls must prepare himself to give an account for them; and whatever the number of brethren he hath under his charge, let him be sure that on judgment day he will, without doubt, have to give an account to the Lord for all these souls, in addition to that of his own. And thus, whilst he is in constant fear of the Shepherd’s future examination about the sheep entrusted to him, and is watchful of his account for others, he is made solicitous also on his own account; and whilst by his admonitions he had administered correction to others, he is freed from his own failings.


Of Those Who Having Often Been Corrected Do Not Amend

If a brother hath often been corrected and hath even been excommunicated for a fault and doth not amend, let a more severe correction be applied to him, namely, proceed against him with corporal punishment.

But if even then he doth not reform, or puffed up with pride, should perhaps, which God forbid, even defend his actions, then let the Abbot act like a prudent physician. After he hath applied soothing lotions, ointments of admonitions, medicaments of the Holy Scriptures, and if, as a last resource, he hath employed the caustic of excommunication and the blows of the lash, and seeth that even then his pains are of no avail, let him apply for that brother also what is more potent than all these measures: his own prayer and that of the brethren, that the Lord who is all-powerful may work a cure in that brother.

But if he is not healed even in this way, then finally let the Abbot dismiss him from the community, as the Apostle saith: “Put away the evil one from among you” (1 Cor 5:13); and again: “If the faithless depart, let him depart” (1 Cor 7:15); lest one diseased sheep infect the whole flock.


Duncan said:

Thanks David, and Adam – this is fantastic.

posted on December 3, 2007

Kathleen Bradley said:

Perhaps Jack Welch was following the rules of St. Benedict. This calls to mind the Leadership section of GE’s 2000 annual report:< ?xml:namespace prefix =" o" ns =" "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office"" />

“And it’s about the four “types” that represent the way we evaluate and deal with our existing leaders. Type I: shares our values; makes the numbers—sky’s the limit! Type II: doesn’t share the values; doesn’t make the numbers—gone. Type III: shares the values; misses the numbers—typically, another chance, or two. None of these three are tough calls, but Type IV is the toughest call of all: the manager who doesn’t share the values, but delivers the numbers; the “go-to” manager, the hammer, who delivers the bacon but does it on the backs of people, often “kissing up and kicking down” during the process. This type is the toughest to part with because organizations always want to deliver—it’s in the blood— and to let someone go who gets the job done is yet another unnatural act. But we have to remove these Type IVs because they have the power, by themselves, to destroy the open, informal, trust-based culture we need to win today and tomorrow.

We made our leap forward when we began removing our Type IV managers and making it clear to the entire Company why they were asked to leave—not for the usual “personal reasons” or “to pursue other opportunities,” but for not sharing our values. Until an organization develops the courage to do this, people will never have full confidence that these soft values are truly real. There are undoubtedly a few Type IVs remaining, and they must be found. They must leave the Company, because their behavior weakens the trust that more than 300,000 people have in its leadership.

See the whole report at http://www.ge.com/annual00/download/images/GEannual00.pdf

posted on December 3, 2007

Wally Bock said:

Thanks for sharing that, David. I first learned of the requirements of an Abbott from a Benedictine priest who was my dinner partner last Christmas. It had drifted out of my thoughts and so seeing it here was a kind of re-discovery. Thank you.

posted on December 5, 2007

Bill Peper said:

Thank you for the extended post on this fascinating topic. I appreciate your willingness to feature this explicitly Christian passage in your blog.

St. Benedict of Nursia lived from 480-543 AD. Continuous adherence to the Benedictine Rule for more than 1500 years testifies to its timeless wisdom and deep insight into the nature of Man. It is sad to think that virtually all of today’s leading business journals and publishing houses would reject this excerpt because of its religious content.

Over the centuries Churches have faced virtually all of the vexing management challenges we encounter daily. Its insights, successes and failures have much to teach us. I would bet that the passage quoted above will continue to be instructive for at least 1500 more years.

posted on December 6, 2007