Examples of integrity: Leadership lessons from Roman Catholic nuns

What do we have to learn about leadership from the lives of Roman Catholic nuns?

For years, nuns have been portrayed in the media as naïve, romantic do-gooders. At the same time, many Catholics have childhood memories of tough nuns in the classroom, who punished and sometimes humiliated students for making mistakes or misbehaving. Neither stereotype captures the essence of women religious today.
I appreciate the relationships that I have with many nuns who are courageous, generous, loving and passionate visionaries. They are women who are willing to stand in the face of oppression; stand in the face of injustice, and stand with the marginalized within our society. They are women who are willing to risk their lives for what they believe.
They are teachers and doctors, theologians, scientists, artists and activists. They are women who will not abide by the status quo, nor have their voices silenced.
Integrity
Roman Catholic nuns live and work within a male-dominated institution. They are expected to follow the mandates set forth by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church without question. And yet, throughout our history, nuns have raised questions that matter. They have raised questions about equality, leadership, dignity and respect within the Catholic Church and in our world. They have raised questions in the spirit of loyalty and love for the church, while appreciating that we can get stuck in viewpoints that may contradict our core values and beliefs.
Inclusion
Regardless of our religious or political views, we can agree that in any organization, when the voice of its members is not invited, the full capacity of the organization is diminished. “Failure to listen leads to judgment, cynicism and fear,” said Sr. Carol Zinn, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, during the opening session of the group’s annual assembly last month in Nashville.
While perhaps not as blatantly obvious, many women in secular organizations today feel equally marginalized. They do not experience receiving an invitation to the leadership table. There may be a few women who “break through,” yet for the majority, there is a sense of futility. They cannot support systems that continue to embrace a conscious or unconscious white male culture which does not promote the full opportunity for women to be both professionals and mothers. As a result, many women opt out of corporations rather than stay and challenge the systems.
In fairness, there are some men in leadership roles who realize the cost to organizations by not advancing women into leadership opportunities. They recognize that eliminating half of the brain power within an organization reduces the possibility for innovation. They appreciate that the data shows that when women are at the table, businesses are more successful. However, without transforming business cultures, the impact of advancing women in the workplace is limited.
Decision-making and reflection
One of the disciplines that many women religious utilize is a process of decision-making that uses contemplation, observation and exploration, reflection and dialogue, and finally, decision and action. Leaders in any organization could benefit from learning this process.
Even in the face of recent criticism by church authorities, the leaders of religious communities did not react. Rather, they invited dialogue. They engaged in conversation with those who leveled the greatest criticism, without compromising their own commitment in the process.
Action
Throughout history, Roman Catholic nuns have given witness to their deep and abiding faith by challenging systems that suppress the rights of others. In the past two years, we have seen “Nuns on the Bus,” led by Sister Simone Campbell, as one example of their willingness to act.
A small band of nuns travelled by bus throughout parts of the country to challenge congressional plans that cut vital social programs for the hurting poor and the struggling middle class. Again, regardless of our political views, we can appreciate the creative, peaceful way these nuns invite us to consider different ways of addressing the challenges our society faces.
The experience of Roman Catholic nuns is not all that different from the experience of women in many organizations. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious has much to teach us in the weeks ahead as it responds to recent mandates from the Vatican. Joan Chittister, an outspoken Benedictine nun, author and advocate, wrote in a recent blog: “The Leadership Conference of Women Religious will face decisions that will move the question of the agency of women in a man’s church either forward or back…” And Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki wrote: “Dearest Sisters, you have done nothing wrong. It is your obligation…to ask the questions that need to be voiced. Be proud of the questions you have asked, the speakers you invited to your assemblies, the statements you issued… ‘We’ve had enough of exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues…’”
Men and women leaders in diverse organizations will benefit from the leadership practices of Roman Catholic nuns: live with integrity; decide in reflection and dialogue; appreciate the benefit of inclusion; and act with justice.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.

What do we have to learn about leadership from the lives of Roman Catholic nuns?

For years, nuns have been portrayed in the media as naïve, romantic do-gooders. At the same time, many Catholics have childhood memories of tough nuns in the classroom, who punished and sometimes humiliated students for making mistakes or misbehaving. Neither stereotype captures the essence of women religious today.
I appreciate the relationships that I have with many nuns who are courageous, generous, loving and passionate visionaries. They are women who are willing to stand in the face of oppression; stand in the face of injustice, and stand with the marginalized within our society. They are women who are willing to risk their lives for what they believe.
They are teachers and doctors, theologians, scientists, artists and activists. They are women who will not abide by the status quo, nor have their voices silenced.
Integrity
Roman Catholic nuns live and work within a male-dominated institution. They are expected to follow the mandates set forth by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church without question. And yet, throughout our history, nuns have raised questions that matter. They have raised questions about equality, leadership, dignity and respect within the Catholic Church and in our world. They have raised questions in the spirit of loyalty and love for the church, while appreciating that we can get stuck in viewpoints that may contradict our core values and beliefs.
Inclusion
Regardless of our religious or political views, we can agree that in any organization, when the voice of its members is not invited, the full capacity of the organization is diminished. “Failure to listen leads to judgment, cynicism and fear,” said Sr. Carol Zinn, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, during the opening session of the group’s annual assembly last month in Nashville.
While perhaps not as blatantly obvious, many women in secular organizations today feel equally marginalized. They do not experience receiving an invitation to the leadership table. There may be a few women who “break through,” yet for the majority, there is a sense of futility. They cannot support systems that continue to embrace a conscious or unconscious white male culture which does not promote the full opportunity for women to be both professionals and mothers. As a result, many women opt out of corporations rather than stay and challenge the systems.
In fairness, there are some men in leadership roles who realize the cost to organizations by not advancing women into leadership opportunities. They recognize that eliminating half of the brain power within an organization reduces the possibility for innovation. They appreciate that the data shows that when women are at the table, businesses are more successful. However, without transforming business cultures, the impact of advancing women in the workplace is limited.
Decision-making and reflection
One of the disciplines that many women religious utilize is a process of decision-making that uses contemplation, observation and exploration, reflection and dialogue, and finally, decision and action. Leaders in any organization could benefit from learning this process.
Even in the face of recent criticism by church authorities, the leaders of religious communities did not react. Rather, they invited dialogue. They engaged in conversation with those who leveled the greatest criticism, without compromising their own commitment in the process.
Action
Throughout history, Roman Catholic nuns have given witness to their deep and abiding faith by challenging systems that suppress the rights of others. In the past two years, we have seen “Nuns on the Bus,” led by Sister Simone Campbell, as one example of their willingness to act.
A small band of nuns travelled by bus throughout parts of the country to challenge congressional plans that cut vital social programs for the hurting poor and the struggling middle class. Again, regardless of our political views, we can appreciate the creative, peaceful way these nuns invite us to consider different ways of addressing the challenges our society faces.
The experience of Roman Catholic nuns is not all that different from the experience of women in many organizations. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious has much to teach us in the weeks ahead as it responds to recent mandates from the Vatican. Joan Chittister, an outspoken Benedictine nun, author and advocate, wrote in a recent blog: “The Leadership Conference of Women Religious will face decisions that will move the question of the agency of women in a man’s church either forward or back…” And Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki wrote: “Dearest Sisters, you have done nothing wrong. It is your obligation…to ask the questions that need to be voiced. Be proud of the questions you have asked, the speakers you invited to your assemblies, the statements you issued… ‘We’ve had enough of exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues…’”
Men and women leaders in diverse organizations will benefit from the leadership practices of Roman Catholic nuns: live with integrity; decide in reflection and dialogue; appreciate the benefit of inclusion; and act with justice.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.

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