Four Rules for Effective Leaders

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Painting: King David, Pedro Berruguete (1500)

By Msgr. Charles Pope, May 31, 2018

In modern bibles and in the breviary, Psalm 101 is often called the “Avowal of a Good Ruler.” In other words, it is a kind of oath a ruler takes pledging to promote virtue in the kingdom and to refute error and sin. One can imagine King David saying this himself.

While this psalm is surely a good plan for a ruler, it applies to us as well, for in fact we are rulers too. We are called to rule our very self. In addition, most of us attain to rule by becoming parents, priests, religious, or other types of leaders. Thus, Psalm 101 provides a good source for reflection for all of us.

Psalm 101 – Avowal of a Good Ruler

My song is of mercy and justice;
I sing to you, O Lord.
I will walk in the way of perfection.
O when, Lord, will you come?

I will walk with blameless heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
whatever is base.

I will hate the ways of the crooked;
they shall not be my friends.
The false-hearted must keep far away;
the wicked I disown.

The man who slanders his neighbor in secret
I will bring to silence.
The man of proud looks and haughty heart
I will never endure.

I look to the faithful in the land
that they may dwell with me.
He who walks in the way of perfection
shall be my friend.

No man who practices deceit
shall live within my house.
No man who utters lies shall stand
before my eyes.

Morning by morning I will silence
all the wicked in the land,
uprooting from the city of the Lord
all who do evil

There are four themes or rules that those in authority should heed:

I. Consistent Calling on the Lord – My song is of mercy and justice; I sing to you, O Lord. I will walk in the way of perfection. O when, Lord, will you come? I will walk with blameless heart within my house.

To have any authority over our own self or others, we must first call out to the One who has ultimate authority over us. The psalm bids us to seek the way of perfection and to have the theme song, the keynote of our life, be one of mercy and justice.

Justice points to the ultimate perfection that the Lord offers us, bidding us not to compromise it, dilute it, or despair of it. We must long for it in ourselves. We begin by seeking to walk with increasing blamelessness within the house of our own soul and our own family.

We must also “sing” of justice to others. Too many leaders—clerics, parents, teachers, and others—have stopped singing of justice, of the righteousness that God both offers and insists upon. Justice is more than caring for the poor and recognizing human dignity. It includes every aspect of living in a right relationship to God and the truth He reveals. It thus includes every aspect of the moral life and summons our conformity to what God reveals. The just person cares for the poor and for a just social order, but he also abhors and avoids fornication, adultery, divorce, lying, gossip, false religion, godlessness, theft, greed, and every other distortion of moral truth.

Mercy is joined to justice in the psalm because great patience is often required as we journey to the justice to which God summons us. Mercy bids us to work patiently for and proclaim the justice of God’s truth and to realize that people need time to hear and repent. Mercy is not an inordinate tolerance or a caving in to evil; it is a virtue that enables us to lament the awful state of God’s people, who are so often confused and lost in the immoral fog of this world. Out of this concern we patiently work to establish God’s truth more firmly in our hearts and in the hearts of others, especially those under our care and authority.

Thus, the psalm bids us to call on the Lord and ask that He come to us with His graces in abundance. Help us, Lord. Save us. Have mercy on us and keep us by your grace!

II. Careful Custody of the Senses – I will not set before my eyes whatever is base. I will hate the ways of the crooked.

We live in times of unprecedented exposure to evil, to what is base and coarse. Our lives are almost never quiet. Everywhere there is the noisy clamor of worldly and often sinful voices through television, the Internet, music, movies, advertising, and other media. We can get lost in the small screens of our handheld devices. The distractions, both auditory and visual, are unrelenting. Even the news often features what is controversial, ignoble, violent, strange, and prurient.

We must actively, even aggressively, work to shield our eyes and ears from the steady diet of the world and seek to immerse ourselves more fully and intentionally in what is of God, what is holy and true. To shield our eyes and ears from what is base requires discipline and a firm resolve to turn away from the sinful world and towards the beautiful, serene, lofty beauty of God and His truth.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).

Simply turning off the television and powering down the electronic devices will not be enough. We must also substitute what is good in their place. Look to higher sources such as EWTN and the growing number of helpful Catholic programs, blogs, and websites. Edifying movies are growing in number and quality.

In keeping custody of the senses, we are demonstrating a deep respect of our minds and those of others over whom we have authority. Most people would never dream of swimming in a polluted river, yet many of these same people think little of plunging their minds into the vilest swamps bubbling with every foul thing.

Thus, the Psalm bids us to hate the ways of the crooked and not set before ourselves what is base and sinful.

III. Caution for the Company We Keep – The false-hearted must keep far away; the wicked I disown. The man of proud looks and haughty heart I will never endure. I look to the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me. He who walks in the way of perfection shall be my friend. No man who practices deceit shall live within my house.

The custody of the senses must also extend to our intentional relationships. St. Paul says,

Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals (1 Cor 15:33).

He adds elsewhere,

I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a verbal abuser, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat (1 Cor 5:11).

These verses are not an invitation to snobbery but an honest concern to stay free of unnecessary influences. We should be protective of our soul and the souls of those whom we love and over whom we have authority. We live in a world that glamorizes sin and evil as well as those who exemplify and engage in it. We tolerate it all very well and, out of a desire to flatter the powerful or popular, or from a misplaced admiration, keep the wrong company and expose ourselves and others to danger.

Although not in personal relationships with them, we idolize famous athletes, movie stars, and sometimes politicians. We overlook or make excuses for their poor behavior. Never mind that many are false-hearted, haughty, and engage in deceitful and wrongful practices, never mind that; they’re such great actors, or they can throw a ball through a hoop so consistently, or they’re on our side politically.

The psalm bids us to look to the faithful in the land, to those who desire and seek perfection. We should intentionally seek knowledge of them and learn from their influence. Their lives may be less glamorous or popular, but they can assist us in what we most need: truth, virtue, counsel, and good example in the ways of faith.

Be very careful as to the company you keep and the people whom you admire. Do the same on behalf of your children. Do not overlook the corrupting power of bad company. Priests, parents, and other leaders must exhibit great oversight over what and who influences those in their care. They must not leave poor choices unrebuked.

IV. Correction and Culling of Sinners – The man who slanders his neighbor in secret, I will bring to silence. Morning by morning I will silence all the wicked in the land, uprooting from the city of the Lord all who do evil.

Our first action is to correct the sinner and win him over to what is right. Even with our very self, the first step is to remove sin in our life and to moderate the use of lawful pleasures. Sometimes we discover that mere moderation of a lawful pleasure is not possible. For example, wine is a gift from God, but there are some who cannot drink moderately and must therefore abstain entirely or risk grave harm to themselves and others.

Something similar can be said for our approach to fellow sinners. We first seek to admonish and correct, for all people as they come from God are good and beloved by Him. We strive to preserve union with all people of good will who desire the ways of justice and truth. We correct, as the psalm says, by silencing lies and all forms of wickedness. We silence it with the word of truth. Fraternal correction is an obligation we have to others. The psalm says that we must do it “morning by morning,” that is, consistently.

Jesus says,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matt 18:15).

St Paul says,

Brothers, if someone is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him with a spirit of gentleness (Gal 6:1).

St. James adds,

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins(James 5:19-20).

Thus, our first goal in the face of sin is to correct it and to win the sinner back to the Lord. However, there comes a time when, as the psalm says, there must be an uprooting from the city of God of those who persist in sin and are incorrigible.

Moses says,

You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid(Deut 21:21).

Jesus says of the incorrigible sinner,

And if he refuses to listen even to the Church, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matt 18:17).

St Paul says the following concerning a particular unrepentant sinner in Corinth:

Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit might be saved on the Day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5).

There comes a time when we must establish a firm boundary between ourselves and unrepentant sinners. Exactly when is a matter of prudential judgment.

Too many Church leaders today are rarely willing to consider this option. In this way, sinners are confirmed in their ways and the faithful are disheartened—even scandalized. Parents and other leaders are often lenient to a fault, slow in rebuking and punishing wrongdoing; the evil is never uprooted from the City of God and it spreads like wildfire. The psalm makes it clear that uprooting is sometimes necessary. A good leader needs prudence and courage to undertake such a task, which is done for the good of one and all.

Here, then, are the “Avowals of a Ruler.” Four rules for good, effective leadership.

King David, Pedro Berruguete (1500)