Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What our leaders could learn from the Benedictines

An age-old guide would teach them to act collaboratively but decisively for the common good.

Before the last two regular legislative sessions, policymakers gathered at the Humphrey Institute to discuss overcoming gridlock. Yet each time they return to the people's house, they seize opportunities to squander opportunity.

Before they and the governor meet again on Minnesotans' behalf, they'd benefit from insights of humble leaders whose adherence to centuries-old rules help them stay tethered to what is beneficial about the past while stepping boldly forward to shape tomorrow.

In 1856, five Benedictine monks left Pennsylvania for Minnesota. Joined a year later by six Benedictine nuns from Bavaria, the men built St. John's Abbey and St. John's University, and the women St. Benedict's Monastery, which is America's largest Benedictine community. All are celebrating their sesquicentennial.

They carried little, but they carried the Rule. The Rule of St. Benedict is a 73-chapter sixth-century guide for bringing individuals together to build vital, permanent monastic communities. Within its medieval prose are intentional acts, such as listening, moderation, hospitality, humility, service, stewardship, empowerment, embracing change, respecting people, personal responsibility, learning, prayer and work.

Called "the little rule for beginners," it fuels collaborative leadership to take "what could be" to make "what is better." Among other things, Benedictines brought health care and schools where none existed, innovated in natural-resource management, preserved ancient global texts, built timeless architectural works and made Minnesota Public Radio possible. Ignoring merger mania, they maintain single-sex colleges and traditions within a unique coeducational experience.

The Rule worked yesterday; it works today, and tomorrow policymakers could borrow from it to seize opportunity instead of squandering it.

Listening: Benedictines listen to all members of their community when making decisions. Rather than leading to weak groupthink, disciplined listening expands possibilities and spurs decisiveness. St. Benedict says "listen with the ear of your heart." Today, listening in the people's house is too selective and too limited, causing hesitancy and inefficiency. In truly listening to Minnesotans, rather than to noisy political parties and pundits, our rule makers will hear more, but also learn more, which should stir confidence to see a bigger picture and act for a state interest, rather than self-interest.

Trust: Benedictines fundamentally trust and extend hospitality. When individuals egregiously break trust, as with past cases of sexual abuse by several St. John's monks, community members join to bolster what's broken. It's clear that trust doesn't exist when policy leaders send letters instead of talking with each other. Citizens fill these policy positions. They're not lifetime appointments or personal fiefdoms. Recognizing this, state leaders must stop trying to "win" by making others look bad and instead authentically open to each other so that trust forms and results improve.

Empowerment: St. Benedict says "keep death daily before your eyes." In doing so, Benedictines empower individuals to take initiative for their community's common good. We have big things facing us, such as transportation, aging and education. For almost three years, a bipartisan legislative group, the 2020 Conference, has studied what's coming. We can't wait until 2020. This group should be empowered -- either by their leaders or their own initiative -- to deliver possibilities for Minnesota. Learning stuck in neutral is opportunity lost.

Stewardship: Benedictines protect and expand entrusted resources to make things better. Consequently, people invest in them to keep dynamic work working. Policymakers must realize that stewardship isn't simply about saving or saying no. It also means investing new dollars to innovate.

Brother Dietrich Reinhart, president of St. John's University, says that Benedictines have built strong communities in Minnesota for 150 years because courageous people saw needs in the broader world, most often anticipated them, endured opposition, and pulled together to make new things happen. That tradition of transformation to meet the deepest needs of others drives the Benedictines' story. And it's not over.

Turning to the state's sesquicentennial, policymakers should borrow from leaders already celebrating and seize opportunity to seize opportunity, not squander it. Eric Schubert: StarTribune

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