Leadership lessons from besieged nuns

This story appears in the Apostolic Visitation feature series. View the full series.

by Margaret J. Wheatley


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The Vatican report on the Apostolic Visitation has been well-received by the LCWR and the many orders that were visited during this process. I have walked with the sisters during these years of the investigatory processes initiated by the Vatican prior to Pope Francis. The perspectives I offer here are based on my work in the field of leadership for over 40 years, and my unending appreciation of the sisters.

One of the key predictors of an organization's future fate is how it deals with crises. What do we do when something goes wrong or we're under attack? It is these moments when our true values become startlingly visible. Do leaders panic and scramble to get out of a tough situation, forgetting principles and values? Or do they take the time to work with the crisis, relying on their history, values and principles, engaging their members fully? Only in the latter case is it possible to create the strong social fabric that enables an institution to move confidently into its desired future.

The Vatican's report has entrusted the congregations to discern their way forward rather than impose a more traditional and hierarchical approach. This feels like real progress and wisdom to me; it signifies a new quality of trust and possibility to what had been a very troubling and troubled relationship. And the sisters are ready to assume this responsibility because they have emerged from this crisis with renewed clarity about who they are and what their true values and mission are. They have led so well through these years that the conditions are present for them to work with the report wisely and well.

The strongest women leaders on the planet today are nuns. I’ve worked with a wide diversity of leaders on all continents for 40 years, and nowhere have I found better leadership than among women religious. They know whom they serve and are consistently creative in finding ways to meet the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized. After years of working with them in a supportive, consultative role, I coined the slogan: “If you want it done, ask a nun.”

And then, just six years ago, they became the marginalized ones when the Vatican determined that American women religious needed to be investigated, because they had become too secularized, too feminist as they served the poor. These public statements have been noted for their harshness. In the face of such disrespect, misunderstanding and criticism, many sisters experienced grief and anger, quite understandably. Yet even with these strong emotions present, they relied on their history, charisms and communities to find their way through. This is unusual behavior among any beleaguered or threatened group. But it was only the beginning of their extraordinary leadership practices.

Here are some of the significant leadership lessons to be gleaned from how the sisters journeyed through these years of harassment, and how they’ve been positively transformed by their experience. In this era of appallingly bad leadership, American nuns stand as a bright beacon of leadership excellence – lessons learned that could benefit all leaders. Here are a few learnings:

How leaders in failing systems behave:

- The Vatican acted as any threatened hierarchy does. The visitations began when the church was reeling from the pedophilia scandals and a severe loss of trust. The patterned response is usually to deflect attention from the current leaders by manufacturing another crisis. In this case, they attempted to make women religious the problem, not the male priests.

- Threatened leaders demand obedience to the failing system. As systems fail, leaders apply the old methods with greater force, desperation and mean spiritedness, even though these old ways are the cause of the failure. The Vatican insisted on compliance and control rather than valuing the nuns as exemplars of Christ-like service. (Pope Francis has reversed this with his emphasis on consecrated lives of service.)

- Fear-based leaders push away the best and most motivated staff. The very people most needed during a crisis – those who exemplify the organization’s values and integrity, who have strong connections to the “clients,” become objects of criticism and scorn. This backfires on the system; people become more distrustful and cynical as those they value and support are victimized.

How the nuns behaved:

- Instead of circling the wagons in self-defense, they took the issue to everyone. Nuns are brilliant at taking time for collective discernment. They have learned to trust that Spirit speaks to them in the silence and the communion. They stayed together as they experienced the threat and fear of the investigations, relying on their long years of experience with collective, Spirit-fed knowing.

- Collectively naming what these visitations were about freed individual congregations to choose a trustworthy response. Each of the orders approached the visitations somewhat differently. In the case of one large order, I observed how they spent time discerning what the problem was, at its roots. (The papal bull on domestic abuse helped them define the problem.) Once they had named the issue, this freed each of the individual congregations to determine their own response. They could trust one another’s actions because they had a shared definition of what the problem was.

- They maintained, relied upon and strengthened their values throughout the investigations. They did not lose their way or abandon their integrity, as too many organizations do when under stress. They knew that their core identity was the greatest source of strength – past, present and future. In one order with a charism of hospitality, they reported how the visitation group was puzzled by such a warm response. Yet they confidently knew when and how to defend their values, standing on well-traveled ground, not giving in to destructive demands.

- Years of scrutiny and accusation have led to true transformation. Whatever the Vatican reports, it is clear that American women religious have emerged from this with great confidence in themselves and their mission of service. And with renewed faith in the God they so willingly serve, described by some as “the God of the Future” who has called them to serve the marginalized and oppressed. The Vatican’s unprecedented investigatory actions, allegedly done to assess “the quality of the life of religious women in America” has unintentionally, but wonderfully, given new life and energy to these extraordinary women leaders, the strongest, wisest ones gracing the planet these days.

[Margaret Wheatley is a valued and respected elder in her field of leadership and organizational change. She has published eight books, beginning with the seminal work Leadership and the New Science. She works globally with an extraordinarily wide diversity of organizations and leaders, calling us back to the values and practices that support the human spirit.]