Applauding the Pope: Some Leadership Lessons

Some leadership lessons emerged, at least for me, from the Pope’s announcement he was resigning from this high and sacred office. This is a lifetime office, as we know from its history, but Pope Benedict XVI’s took the route that was last taken 600 years ago (actually 598) by Gregory XII in 1415. While I do not know all the details of Benedict’s resignation (and we probably can never know all the details), I believe there are some leadership lessons embedded in this decision.

The Pope says he is resigning for health reasons and fatigue: This is a lesson for all of us. We should pay attention to our bodies and know when it is time to leave our current assignments. When our energy begins to fail, as the Pope noted, then we are not able to give our best thinking and abilities to the assignment at hand. All humans wind down. Sensing and acknowledging that our time is coming to an end is a high degree of emotional intelligence. Those who remain robust and vibrant into their 90s who we celebrate and tout in the media are not the norm. And if you don’t believe that is the case, you haven’t visited a nursing home in awhile.

The wisdom of knowing it is time to resign: I’ve witnessed it and so have others when a person hangs on to a leadership role when they really should step aside. Pope Benedict XVI is demonstrating wisdom in knowing he can no longer oversee the duties of the office. How many times have we watched a leader hang on to the office without forethought of its demands? There is wisdom in this act by knowing when one is no longer able to function adequately in the role assigned to them in a more youthful moment.

The third session for me has to do with the courage: It’s been 598 years since the last Pope resigned. That’s a long tenure of tradition. And the length of tradition can cause us to make unwise decisions….to preserve the office and not the institution. The Pope understands he is not the person to lead the 1 billion member Catholic church forward, so is courageous enough (and humble enough) to know that the time is right for him to step down.

Finally, the last leadership lesson is one of deep concern for the institution: It is easy to place one’s role as a leader above the mission and future of the organization. An effective leader understands when they are no longer able to guide the institution forward in dealing with issues and complexities of the assignment. Often, we know of those who stay well after their time is ended technically, but continue to push on as if nothing is wrong. We call them lame duck…holding a position but ineffectual in doing anything productive. The phrase “lame duck” has its origins, however, from the London stock exchange of 1771 where a person who is “lame duck” cannot pay their debt. In a sense, the Pope and leaders who stay past their ability to perform the assignment are no longer able to pay the debt for the demands of the job. There is wisdom and courage that reminds a person when it is best to leave for the sake of the institution than to become a debtor where staying diminishes the legacy and hamstrings the ability of the organization to function effectively (hamstring which by the way means” to render useless”).

I admire Pope Benedict XVI as a leader in this final act. He has demonstrated for us what must go into every leadership decision when the transfer of power comes. A leader does not have to be 85 to make that decision. It may happen when they are 65, 70, or 55. Many signs will start to appear for a leader and I believe the emotionally intelligent will make the right decision even though it does not seem the best from those looking in from the outside.

Blessings to you Pope Benedict XVI and all those wise leaders who follow your example.

If You’re a Teacher…Read This.

My heart and head are running faster than my fingers as I typed this blog today. It’s because I am ignited and beginning to catch flame for ideas and opportunities as I read about engaging my current and future students. See, I’m a teacher who loves the material I teach and the wisdom personally gained in my own life over 35 years for the things that bring passion to my life. I love the subjects, the books, the research, the lectures, the PowerPoints, the assignments….I love it all.

But today, I have come to the realization that I love the subject maybe more than I love those sitting in the classroom…the learners who come to be with me annually in the college setting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do get excited about the start of each class and the subject and I do get passionate about the students who pay their tuition to sit in this class with me. I have always cared about them a lot. But in recent reading about the “Mosaic generation,” I have come to understand that I may not really understand what I do as a faculty member….a teacher of a subject.
The reading (“You Lost Me,” by David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins) has made clear to me I have to revisit the principle of “tight/ loose” put forward years ago by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their bestselling business book, “In Search of Excellence.” According to these authors, many companies do not understand that they can manage some things, like the product, etc, but they cannot control what is going on around them in the context of the business world. So there is this contrast of holding on and letting go. That’s how it has to be for me in the classroom…to invite students into the subject, to manage the delivery at the highest quality I can personally muster, to make sure the structures are there to successfully provide what is needed to engage the subject matter, and so on. But the loose part has to be in how students will internalize and understand the material in their contexts; I have the obligation to help them become critical thinkers, yet not the one responsible for how they might engage their worlds. In a sense, I have to walk into each classroom thinking, “how can I turn these students loose in their worlds with minds trained to engage their contexts with wisdom about a subject, not just data and more information they can look up on their iPad or smartphone at any given moment?” See, in today’s teaching environment, the data and information is available EVERY minute via technology. The challenge for me as a teacher is “how do I manage the assignments and data so that when the students are with me they can make the connections needed in a broader world.” It has to be more than tests and quizzes and papers….it has to be about application and engagement. How then do I structure the assignments (tight) to help the students take the content into their worlds as educated people (loose)?

Second, I have to care more for the student’s future and their dreams than I do about the subject matter. Now there is a fine line here in what I mean and don’t want to construe that I don’t care about the subject matter or for that matter the students. But being in the academy for 35 years, I have watched as the subject can easily become more important than the student’s dreams and future hopes. I am realizing I must recommit to knowing why students have chosen my elective class over a host of other options and how this subject will move them closer to being the people or professionals they hope to be in their own lives. I realize this as a faculty member who has taught electives for 90% of my career. I have occasionally taught the “foundational” or “core” classes that students have to take in their majors, but for the most part, I have been teaching those courses students choose from the list. Now, I know that many of them choose it because it is just an elective that fills a requirement, but have I really sought to know how this course might assist them reach their dreams and goals for the future? My challenge here is this: What if those who teach foundational or core courses treated them as electives…..that no one HAD to show up or register for it? What would you do differently? How might you treat the subject and those who come to sit with you? How might you deliver the course content, making it fresh year after year after year after year……to really engage the hearts and minds of the students? How would we revamp the courses at the end of every academic year in order to engage a new set of students the next time the subject is offered? And not just an updated textbook, but a thorough reassessment of each class session and assignment to determine how it will help the student both gain some wisdom on the subject and see the ways it can be applied to the futures they envision for themselves.

Teaching colleagues, if you’ve read this far and say “bunk” or this is “crap,” thanks for your time. But if these ideas have ignited your heart and head to think about the subjects you teach, join me in the annual commitment to become the best we can be as we help the students we encounter fulfill their life dreams and hopes.

Blessings to my colleagues in the noble profession of education and teaching. It has been deeply rewarding to me….and I hope you as well. Grace and peace to you as you give your best to each generation.

The Zen of Gardening (and Life)

Flower gardening is one of my favorite engagements.  For me, it is relaxing, and ultimately fulfilling to see the work come to fruition in blooms, color, and symmetry around our home.  I like to just look at the progress and the results (just ask my wife how many times I stop at the end of the driveway in our car when coming home to look at my plants).  Flower gardening is not a passion, in that deep sense of the word, but it provides for me a connection with the outdoors, fresh air, and watching things come to maturity.

A recent Facebook post got me thinking about the zen of flower gardening because of the humorous responses I received from a number of people.  I posted that I spent time one morning using graph paper to lay out designs and flower beds for the coming season.  I also placed on the graph what I have accomplished in the previous two years of garden work.  My intent in the mapping was to provide what was just right for our house.  You might know what I mean, not the overwhelming gardens where the plants overtake the house and all its windows, and not the kind where there are Spartan attempts to make a house look presentable.  It is the kind of gardening that is simple, yet accentuating.  Purposefully placed, with no haphazard dots of greenery to fill in space. 

For me it is a study, a reflection, a purposeful reading of magazines on perenniels and annuals; the height a flower will get at maturity, what will grow best in our climate, which plants are hearty and will last year after year.  There is thus a zen in my use of graph paper as I drink my cup of coffee pondering placement, design, and interconnectedness of plants.

We think of Zen as something mystical.  But that is because we don’t understand the word’s history or basic meaning.  While it has come into vogue as an Eastern word, its origin is Sanskrit; an Indo-European word meaning “to see or look at.”  It is in the looking and seeing in my mind’s eye that I am able to map out what is there before me; to be intentional about what needs to take place in the early weeks of spring, so that the later days of summer and fall display beauty, fragrance, and art.

My zen of flower gardening maybe is translated from my own life and focus on mission development, planning, and goal setting for the ultimate purpose seeing my life come to fruition; to matter both now and maybe be translated into the lives of others.  Maybe some beauty of my life will add fragrance to another’s.  That is my hope, that is my own zen of life, too; to see and look at what needs to be considered and done so that I might live well now, not in some future moment.

The graph paper layout of my gardening is just like my day planner; a way of seeing life, looking at it, and figuring out how to design and plant early, so that in the summer and fall of life I might deliver on what I have planned.  I want both my plants and my life to develop, mature, and ultimately be beautiful–not too much, not too Spartan, but just right.

Blessings for this day, dear reader. Grace and peace to you.

David Neidert