Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Humility, Courage, Holy Indifference, Holy Poverty": Dorothy Day's Understanding of Leadership

Americans are fascinated with leadership: military leadership, political leadership, college and university leadership, and leadership in business. And I think most of us would like to be leaders.  We see leadership as a sign of recognition and authority, and we know that most leaders get paid more than the followers.

I know I once aspired to be a university dean.  Achieving this recognition, I believed, would be a sign of my personal importance.  I would have the authority to do good things, I told myself.  I would make more money!

As I reach the twilight of my career, I am grateful that I did not become a dean. I don't think I would have been a good one, and I certainly recognize at this stage of my life that I don't have the political skills necessary to survive as a leader in the very politicized atmosphere of higher education.

Reading Dorothy Day's diaries, I came across an entry that gave me a glimpse of Dorothy Day's understanding of leadership, and it is quite different from the popular view. Here is what she wrote:
To be a follower of Jesus, one certainly would not seek after authority, or if it were thrust upon one by ability and recognition of that ability by others, as it was in St. Peter, St. Ambrose, Pius XII, and so on, and in Christian statements where there are such then it would seem necessary to cultivate humility, courage, holy indifference, holy poverty, in order to fulfill one's high office. To lead by example. Even St. Francis, humblest poorest of saints, was thrust into a position of authority. (p. 191)
In American society, we do not associate leadership with holy poverty. Quite the contrary.  We listen to the Wall Street financiers who assure us that the business sector can only attract top notch leaders by paying them obscene amounts of money.  And we can see where that philosophy has gotten us.

Of course, Dorothy Day was a leader.  With Peter Maurin she established the Catholic Worker movement.  And much was achieved.  Writing in 1950, when the Catholic Worker was still young, she noted that CW had served 2,555,000 meals to the poor and had provided 255,500 nights of lodging to the homeless. (p. 148)

If only we saw leadership as Dorothy did. We should be seeking leaders who shrink from the responsibility of authority, people who are humble and modest, and people who do not associate leadership with personal wealth. 

Dorothy Day is quite right.  St. Francis, the poorest of the saints, established the Franciscan movement that has thrived for eight centuries.  In fact, many of our saints tried to avoid positions of power and authority over others.  And looked what they achieved.

Centuries after we have forgotten all the business titans of the day, all the military generals, and all the politicians, Christians will remember the saints--those people who led by example, who were humble, who were poor, who saw the face of Christ in others.  And among those saints whom we honor and remember will be Dorothy Day.