A self-centered follower of Francis of Assisi frustrated by the attention being paid to Francis by thousands of people once said, “Why you? … The whole world seems to be running after you … everyone wants to see you, to hear you, to join you.” Francis patiently replied, “You want to know why me, and well you should. Why me? It’s because God could not have chosen anyone less qualified, or more of a sinner, than myself. And so, for this wonderful work He intends to perform through us, He selected me—for God always chooses the weak and the absurd, and those who count for nothing.” (From p. 113 of Reluctant Saint by Donald Spoto, 2002 by Viking Compass)
Francis of Assisi was both a reluctant saint and a reluctant leader.
What can a man who lived 800 years ago teach us about leadership in the 21 st century? Institutions were different then; or were they? There are an amazing number of similarities between the Middle Ages and the 21 st century. World war, poverty, mercantilism (capitalism), powerful nation states and huge institutions are themes that were debated then as they are today. And like today, one man can make a big difference by approaching life differently and leading by example. Can a man who spent the second half of his life begging for every bite of food he ate be called an exemplary integral leader? Millions have followed in his footsteps. Was he and are these followers lunatics, or even a bit crazy to seek out a life of poverty when their birth heritage clearly gave them access to resources and wealth? What was and is so appealing about this leader?
Francis of Assisi was born into a middle-class Italian mercantile family in a society where one’s class at birth determined one’s long-term destiny. He lived only 44-45 years and the first half of his life was dramatically different from the second half. As a young man, Francis was a fun loving solider and troubadour. He enjoyed singing, composing poetry and experiencing a good time with his friends. He did not care about much other than having fun. As a young man his dream was to become a great knight, and his father’s assumption was that his son would someday take over his cloth merchant business. His friends considered him a leader of the pack.
In his early 20s, a series of life-changing events which we will call crucibles in this study changed his outlook on the world and his own life. Imprisonment and then severe illness caused him to wonder and wander. But he continued to do what he thought his destiny required. In 1205, equipped with the best armor that his father’s money could buy, and en route to become a great knight serving in the papal armies of the Crusades, Francis experienced two contrasting dreams whose messages led him to return to Assisi, abandoning his aspirations to become a great knight.
His father was not too happy, but allowed his young son to try to “find himself.” But when Francis stole from his father to do what Francis claimed God had told him to do, it was too much for his father to tolerate. His father turned him in to “the authorities,” which in the Middle Ages was the local church pastor. Now estranged from his family, Francis began a new life as a vagabond and beggar doing literally what he claimed God had told him to do, i.e. “rebuild his church.”
Strangely enough other young people and well-to-do Catholic priests began to follow him because they were attracted to his strange views on life, and because Francis seemed truly happy and unburdened by what were becoming traditional materialistic values. Francis had what today is called a systemic view of the world. He saw all worldly creatures as equal and ultimately connected. A leper with sores was no better than a knight in shining armor, and the birds of the forest and fish of the sea were all part of God’s progeny to which we are related as brothers and sisters.
Francis did not set out to have followers and he did not set out to establish a new religious order. He was told that he would have to get permission from the Pope in Rome in order to be able to preach to others and remain part of the Catholic Church, but he resisted creating rules and processes, as was the custom for religious orders. He called his fraternity of followers his “Lesser Brothers” (fratres minores – translated into English as Friars Minor). He did not want the rigidity of a traditional order and never wanted his followers to feel they needed to obey him. Francis’ idea was that his followers should live according to God’s will, not his.
His preaching, peacemaking and sacrifice as well as dedication to what he called “Lady Poverty” were less about being poor, per se, and more about having no attachment to possessions. Francis felt that holiness and spiritual integrity could never be found in the midst of things, in the madness of power or though the judgment of others. This study will explore how Francis’ behavior and beliefs might be representative of what Ken Wilber describes as connected to the Kosmos, and what contemporary academics of leadership call integral leadership.
One of the better-integrated aspects of Francis’ form of leadership is that he was able to evolve, and in some ways revolutionize how people might approach living out their Catholic faith. Rather than completely rejecting the Catholic Church and its many issues at the time (the Crusades and Inquisition were in full swing), he was successful in creating change while remaining part of the Church and its leaders. While others trying to revolutionize the system formed splinter groups that often labeled heretics, Francis was very non-judgmental of the system and was in turn able to effect change.
Today Francis is admired by people of all religions perhaps because he understood that God can speak to and through all persons and has done so throughout the ages. Responsible for the first Muslim-Catholic dialogue in 1218, Francis spent a week in discussion with the young Muslim Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. While Francis felt himself a failure for not converting the Sultan to Christianity, they developed a tremendous mutual respect for each other. Some scholars attribute the end of the Fifth Crusade in 1221 to the holiness and dialogue of these two men.
Francis of Assisi died feeling that he was a failure, but his last words were that he knew that he had spent his life doing what he was supposed to do to the best of his ability. He has much to teach us about leadership.
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