Friday, January 28, 2011

How the Mighty Fail: Lessons in Leadership (Part 8.) The need for a system of "checks and balances"

This is Part 8 of "How the Mighty Fail", based on my book "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines"  I'd like to suggest you read the first six parts and then this installement, otherwise you may miss the context.
The third component of the "Toxic Triangle" ("Conducive Environment" continued)

C. – Conducive environment: Clericalism and the Absence of checks and balances

Organizations need “checks and balances”

Strong organizations (and nations) tend to have strong institutions and strong countervailing centers of power. Before the American constitution was written, traditional governments stood on three foundations: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the established church. The framers of the US constitution could see that many governments, based on the aforementioned pillars, were capable of oppressing the many for the sake of an elite few.

Societies are capable of self-government but most of them need some mechanism of checks and balances to save the members from the ravages of greed and ambition. Machiavelli showed us how a clever “prince” with unrestrained ambition could manipulate power for his own ends. The American constitution is designed to provide an intricate system of “checks and balances,” with different parts of the government serving to check other parts in order to sustain a balance between opposing tendencies.

Governments or organizations without such a system of dynamic balance can make it easy for individuals or parties to usurp power. That’s why large corporations require an independent board to provide oversight – a system of checks and balances.

Leaders need “checks and balances”

No doubt, leaders need discretion to do their jobs. But, unchecked discretion allows destructive leaders to abuse their power. Because young, high-growth, rapidly transforming, and smaller organizations tend to have limited mechanisms for governance a dysfunctional leader can wreak havoc. Such, I suggest, was the case with the Legion of Christ and its founder Fr. Marcial Maciel.

The less supervision there is the easier it is for the “dark side” of a leader to emerge. Various researchers suggest these conditions characterized Enron at the height of its popularity on Wall Street. In my opinion, the Vatican which regulates organizations of religious and priests within the Catholic Church did not have a transparent system of checks and balances to effectively supervise and manage the Legion of Christ and its founder Fr. Maciel. During the clerical confusion which reigned in Mexico following the Revolution and the Cristero War (with many Mexican Bishops in exile in the US,) Fr. Maciel was able to play “both ends against the middle.”

Churches need “checks and balances”

The Founder was ordained a priest by one of his uncles. It is not at all clear that he studied the curriculum of studies required for ordination as a Catholic priest. He had already been expelled from a reputable seminary but that didn’t deter him or his patrons.

Most, if not all, his early activities took place under the radar of the institutional Church. From his early twenties on he basically was able to do as he pleased. It had to be relatively easy taking his first followers from Mexico to Spain to Rome to avoid supervision by the “hierarchy.” He was an effective and charismatic fund-raiser and in a remarkably short period of time he had established his major seminary in Rome. He won the support and affection of Popes, Cardinals and influential lay people who, because of his obvious “success” never stopped to do a background check on his “credentials.”

A culture of apathy seems to have held sway at the Vatican where all power is essentially centralized in the person of the Holy Father. Fr. Maciel was able to thrive in this system of centralized governance once he had been accepted by the inner circle of powerful Cardinals. No doubt they shared his vision, his zeal for the Church, and were impressed by the amazing success of his foundation. Such an ethos, without the support of structures based on autonomous “political’ units,(to provide checks and balances) allowed Fr. Maciel to concentrate his power, create total dependence amongst his followers, suppress dissidence and suppress any opposition to his methods. (Legionaries made a private vow never to criticize a superior - and to inform the superior general (Fr. Maciel) if they heard any criticism.)

To my mind, the absence of checks and balances to control the management of a religious order within the Church and the clericalism dominant at the Vatican and amongst the hierarchy are contributing factors to the “conducive environment” which forms the third leg of the toxic triangle that came together for Fr. Maciel..

For instance,why did the Vatican approve the private vows? If the "authorities" did not know about the private vows, why not? By the time I left the organization in 1982, the Legion was well established in Mexico, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and in three dioceses in the United States. How come no one in "authority" (local Bishops, pastors etc.) seemed to be aware of some obvious organizational dysfunction in the Legion? My guess is that lots of them noticed features that gave cause for concern - but they did little or nothing about it. Why? I suspect it was because of the absence of an effective system of checks and balances combined with a lack of communication between different jurisdictions.

Next - How our brains are wired: the influence of biology on leadership; an explanation of why some leaders can be dysfunctional.

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