To read Thucydides, Xenophon, Caesar or Plutarch is not just to learn about the social, political, military and cultural developments and upheavals of the ancient past, but also to understand the various leadership styles that allowed the political and military leaders of the time to earn historiographical recognition.
The visionary style of Augustus, the participative model of Pericles, Julius Caesar’s pacesetting impulses during the Gallic campaigns, even the directive leadership features of a Nero or a Domitian, offer a glimpse of authority in action, a window into what it takes to rally groups and powerbrokers around goals and objectives.
But by far the deepest and clearest, as well as the most documented insights into leadership in action is afforded by the medieval monastic model, the leaders of abbeys and monasteries who brought communities of faith and action together, built groups from the ground up, offered a vision and the means to accomplish what many would’ve thought impossible.
We know more about the day-to-day deeds and mindsets of abbots and abbesses who managed to inspire, motivate and drive monks and nuns on the path to community building. What yesterday was a clearing in the forest is today a blooming centre of spirituality and economic growth. Thanks to the effective leadership of a handful of men and women, the European landscape was changed forever. Textual communities flourished, support networks were developed, ideals were forged. The medieval monastery proved the most resilient polity, the most enduring enterprise, the only one which was able to transmit its assets and values almost uninterruptedly, while states, cultures and civilisations rolled away around it.
The men and women fronting the abbeys of the medieval period embodied the totality of leadership styles that our generation is admiring. They offered a vision, listened, in regular meetings (which they called chapter meetings), to their members’ concerns, dealt with confrontation and delegated responsibility. Not all of them were effective leaders, of course, but taken together, and over the long period, they provided a framework for understanding what it takes to be a succesful leader, able to take the team from wilderness to community.
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