Contemplative Leadership with Saints Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola

Saints Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola, Contemplative Leaders
Saints Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola, Contemplative Leaders

In recent months I have become very interested in the topic of leadership.

Which might seem silly, since I do not manage people, or lead a congregation, or hold a military command position. But I’ve come to recognize that “leadership” is a topic that has broad implications, broader than just our job descriptions. And for those of us who embrace contemplative spirituality, it’s a topic that I think we need to be paying close attention to.

In fact, let me make a couple of bold statements:

  • To be a contemplative means to be a leader.
  • And to be a good leader, one needs to be contemplative.

Why do I say these things? Well, to begin with, everyone has a foundational task in leading your own self. Call it discipline, self-control, good habits, time management — it all boils down to our ability to shape our own lives and missions in constructive and consistent ways. Nobody’s perfect: we all make mistakes. But learning to lead ourselves in a better and more effective way is an important part of contemplative living.

Good leaders do not dominate, but rather influence and inspire those they lead. Being a contemplative begins with allowing God to influence and inspire ourselves (there’s that self-leadership bit again), but that’s only the beginning. We receive God’s love, inspiration, and influence in order that we can then share it with others. The “others” we lead may or may not be people who we lead in an official capacity.

I know from my years as a corporate manager that sometimes the most effective leaders in an organization do not enjoy any official status as leaders or managers whatsoever. Saint Benedict insists that sometimes the youngest member of a monastery may be the one who speaks the will of God — in other words, who has something to say that will provide healthy and constructive leadership for the entire organization. This holds true for other organizations as well.

Since I’ve mentioned Saint Benedict already, maybe this is the place to say that I turn again and again to St. Benedict (found of western monasticism) and St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) for inspiration both in my spiritual life but also in my understanding of what it means to be an effective leader.

They both exemplify a term I learned from Tilden Edwards: “mind-in-heart leadership.” This means something different than just relying on feelings or emotions when we lead. Rather, a mind-in-heart leader is one who leads out of prayer and contemplation: who allows listening, not-knowing or unknowing, trust, and seeking the face of God to shape one’s leadership style.

I don’t think this model of leadership shows up in many business management textbooks! But it has guided the Benedictines and the Jesuits for centuries, and it can revolutionize our lives as well.

I know not everyone who embraces contemplation see themselves as “leaders,” but I’d like to challenge you to do so. Because you have answered a call to listen for God in silence and trust, you have something to share with others. Don’t bury your talent or hide your light under a bushel. Be willing to inspire and influence others with your trusting, seeking heart.

A question for you: Can you think of a practical way that contemplation and silent prayer influences you to be a better leader (even if the only person you’re leading is yourself)? If so, I’d like to know about it — please leave a comment and share your insight.


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12 thoughts on “Contemplative Leadership with Saints Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola”

  1. I absolutely agree that contemplation and prayer are key to good leadership. As a lay cistercian and former CEO of an organization, I used servant leadership as my management style because I am called to follow The Rule. Servant leadership, I believe, is management by The Rule. As a college Dean now, it has worked well with faculty and students.

  2. I am currently being targeted for speaking out on behalf of my colleagues at work. In a nutshell, my supervisor is angry with me for my taking our concerns to his boss because we felt like we were not being heard on an issue. As I type this my director is on the way to collect a “supervisory note”I have been asked to sign which will be placed in my file. Contemplation has been crucial for me to stay grounded and focused and to deal with my frustration and anger over the situation. I usually have my time of centering prayer very early in the morning then have breakfast with my wife, exercise, and then spend some time in study before heading off to work. This morning I replaced my study with another 20 minutes of centering prayer.

    Richard Rohr’s daily meditation yesterday sums up my inner landscape:

    “How do we find inner freedom? Notice that whenever we suffer pain, the mind is always quick to identify with the negative aspects of things and replay them over and over again, wounding us deeply. Almost all humans have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) of the mind, which is why so many people become fearful, hate-filled, and wrapped around their negative commentaries. This pattern must be recognized early and definitively. Peace of mind is actually an oxymoron. When you’re in your mind, you’re hardly ever at peace, and when you’re at peace, you’re never only in your mind. The Early Christian abbas (fathers) and ammas (mothers) knew this, and first insisted on finding the inner rest and quiet necessary to tame the obsessive mind. Their method was first called the prayer of quiet and eventually was referred to as contemplation….”

    So I am trying to manage the OCD with centering prayer and praying for wisdom, mercy and restraint.

    1. Wow, I’m so sorry to hear about your corrosive work situation. I will keep you and all parties in my prayer. I hope that you will find a resolution that is just and amenable to everyone involved. And I really respect and laud your commitment to walk through the fire as a contemplative. I think it’s the only way to avoid the temptation to “fight fire with fire” i.e. to become just as oppositional as the “other side” is.

      Enjoy your silence. And reconnect it with at least once every day. Twice is even better.

  3. About 7 months after I started a regular practice of silent prayer I was offered a senior leadership position in my organization. I have felt that the very qualities that I need for my new leadership position are being formed by silent prayer.  The ability to still my thoughts and reactions will help me keep a calm head. A firm understanding of my own worth as a child of God allows me to find my self esteem from within rather than needing to impress others to feel good about myself. Being able to listen respectfully to differing viewpoints while keeping the best outcomes in mind helps me in negotiations and conferences.  A grasp on God’s will helps me maintain my credibility. There are many skills a leader must learn, including communicating a vision, handling conflict, and giving feedback, and contemplative prayer is well suited to giving us an interior space where this kind of growth can take place. 

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey. Good luck with your leadership position, and I’m glad to see that you so clearly discern how your prayer practice is supporting your role as a leader. It’s a paradox: silent prayer is an end to itself, it has no goal other than being present to the mystery of God. And yet it really does open “an interior space where this kind of growth can take place.” I think the corollary is “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

  4. Excellent insights on Leadership. I am a young manager working for the government. I find contemplation very interesting and feel I belong there , but was challenged thinking I have to be living far away from civilization as well as being less social.
    By nature, I like to be with people and am social. I am also very interested in leadership and I thought having a liking for contemplation might be a paradox. I wish there were some talks that I could listen to (audio or video) that pertains to leadership and contemplation.
    Once again very enlightening!

    1. If you’re looking for some reading material, check out the books Soul at Work: Spiritual Leadership in Organizations and The Soul of A Leader: Finding Your Path to Success and Fulfillment by Margaret Benefiel. She also edited a volume called The Soul of Supervision: Integrating Practice and Theory. I don’t know of any audio or video off the top of my head, but I bet there’s something out there, if you find anything let me know. Explore the work of Tilden Edwards and Gerald May. Finally, there’s an ebook called Contemplative Leadership by Peter Ng Kok Song, which I haven’t read, but the foreword is by Laurence Freeman of the WCCM, so I imagine it’s worth checking out.

  5. Great insights. Thank you! I love the concept of self-leadership.

    There are two main ways I see my contemplative practices directly affecting my leadership abilities — patience and humility. As I recall, increased patience and a decreased drive to “rush to judgment” were some of the first fruits of my contemplative prayer practice. As I’ve learned to detach from my noisy little ego and center in right relationship with God, I think I’ve become a better listener and less interested in my own opinions. 🙂 Thanks for reminding me how important my practices are to leadership – I’m new to pastoring and mustn’t get to busy for contemplation and meditation.

    1. I’m always so encouraged when I hear from pastors who have an intentional contemplative practice. I think it’s such a vital and important way to nurture not only your own spiritual life but your ministry as well. Patience and humility are indeed essential, as is perseverance. If you get overwhelmed and miss a day or two (or more!), don’t despair, but return to the practice as soon as possible. Thanks for reading — and for you comment. Stay in touch.

  6. Carl,

    This post is an answer to prayer as I’ve been in a season of dryness, anger, frustration, self-centeredness – you name it, I’ve been experiencing it since November. This week many moments of crying out to God revealed to me that I have not been disciplined in my centering prayer practice. I had become the opposite of everything I felt God was calling me to be as a person and as clergy. It does begin with “mind-in-heart leadership” because relying on emotions can be harmful to self and others. Two days ago I recommitted myself to twice a day centering prayer. Already I am more open to trusting and relying on God instead of myself. I’m finding I’m allowing more to flow around me instead of being a stumbling block that has been quenching the Spirit and others. As the world around us continues to churn in chaos, may contemplative leadership prevail as we strive to being agents of peace.

    Your work is making a difference and for that I am grateful.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I’m simply the midwife here: what really matters is your willingness to allow God to give birth to your authentic self by means of your daily practice. I wish you every blessing as you persevere in silence and love.

  7. Dear Carl,
    Thank you for the excellent article. You (or your readers) may be interested in the work I do at The Cardoner Institute – which seeks to flesh out more deliberately the connections you have made in this piece. Thanks again for your work and continued inspiration,
    ~Alan C. Haras
    Founder & Director of The Cardoner Institute for Contemplative Leadership

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