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Op/ed: Leadership by fiat seldom works


By Ritch Eich on Sept. 14, 2012

Having been on an extensive trip to Poland and other parts of Central Europe recently, I was anxious to read Zbigniew Brzezinski’s latest bestseller, “Strategic Vision,” when I arrived home.

As I read it, my mind wandered to several organizations seemingly lacking a vision that engages people and doesn’t enrage them. While Brzezinski makes a compelling case for unity, solving our domestic problems and a broader vision for international relations, his advocacy for leaders to practice engagement is not surprising given his distinguished record in government, higher education and corporate board service.

You’ll likely remember another book by the Polish-born former U.S. National Security Advisor and Johns Hopkins University professor, “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy,” which drew a likeness between the Catholic Church and communism from another time in our history.

Although decades have passed since the heyday of communism, suppression of dissent and discrimination is unfortunately alive and well in some business environs and certainly in the Catholic Church. Congress has recently gotten into the act by passing legislation to protect whistle blowers.

However, the Catholic Church has taken the opposite position. It is apparent in the Vatican’s reprehensible April 2012 decree proclaiming that U.S. Catholic nuns spend less time on critical matters of social justice and poverty and be more outspoken in opposing abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.

While I’m hardly an expert on the Catholic Church, I do believe I know a thing or two about leadership and the sisters. I had the distinct pleasure of working with the Religious Sisters of Mercy for many years in a large Catholic hospital where I witnessed their ministry first hand. They make up the most caring, intelligent, industrious and thoughtful community I’ve encountered in my career.

The selfless work of nuns from all Catholic orders in inner city soup kitchens, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, free clinics and schools around the world is unparalleled.

Their dedication to effectively dealing with poverty, helping oppressed and powerless people and combating the worst global diseases imaginable is truly remarkable. They truly are the “public face” of the Catholic Church. It has often been said that they do the actual work of God, not simply preach it.

The recent Vatican reprimand, apparently based on little dialogue with the nuns themselves, appears to be one more effort being exerted by church males — especially many U.S. priests, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See — to put the nuns back in their habits — to put them “in their place” and totally control their actions. To the male hierarchy of the Church, I suggest they reconsider their blatant, dictatorial power play by practicing three essential leadership qualities:

• Meet with and listen to the nuns’ point of view developed from their work “in the trenches” they’ve occupied for centuries.

• Show respect for these female leaders by ceasing the demeaning, disrespectful and cowardly issuance of decrees that harken back to tyrants all too familiar to us.

• Abandon the reckless use of authority by genuinely trying to collaborate with and honor the devotion and longstanding, courageous service of the nuns.

Good communication, respect for others, receptiveness to advice from people who work tirelessly with those in need and collaboration are among the basic qualities of successful leadership in any organization be it corporate, religious or political.

My research on leadership demonstrates clearly that effective executives don’t put obstacles in front of people; they help remove them. Let us hope that the Vatican, which represents one of the largest businesses in the world, will soon practice engagement through greater freedom, openness and appreciation, not hostility, toward women religious.

Continuing to rule by top-down fiat with little or no discussion is demeaning and counterproductive. It is the antithesis of enlightened leadership in any business and a very bad habit. Church leaders might heed Dwight D. Eisenhower’s words of wisdom: “you do not lead by hitting someone over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.”

• Ritch Eich is a Thousand Oaks-based management consultant. He is the author of “Real Leaders Don’t Boss” and can be contacted at