The Inconvenient Elder

 In Character, Church, Duty, Fred's Blog, Leadership, People, Transitions, Uncategorized, Vocation

Listen to “The Inconvenient Elder” by Fred Smith

 

The creation of wealth often spurs an unexpected reaction in the next generation. During the 12th and early 13th centuries, there was something of an explosion of both wealth and the formation of informal orders within the Catholic Church. One of the reasons for the founding of these monastic communities was a generation of young people turning away from the excesses of their wealthy parents.

The son of one of the nouveau riche, Francis of Assisi, was raised as a spoiled and privileged young man. Imprisoned for a year for being on the losing side of a war with a rival city, his friends noticed a change. He found a little abandoned church and spent whole days there praying. He renounced his inheritance and all claims on his family. Starting with two young friends the group grew to 12 and then spread rapidly across Europe and North America. To be part of the group, a man had to sell all his goods, give the money to the poor and sever all family ties.

The new order quickly numbered in the thousands but gradually changed over time from an independent loose confederation of “brothers” living in absolute poverty to an official order of the Church with written regulations under the jurisdiction of a Cardinal designated as the “protector” of the order. This was the beginning of the end for Francis, who was at heart an entrepreneur. It marked the change from a few brothers who owned nothing to a disciplined community accumulating wealth and influence. It was then that Francis became what Joan Acocella coins “the inconvenient elder” in an article in The New Yorker:

“When he ceded control of the group Francis hoped that he could still lead the men by example but his influence quickly waned. This enraged him.‘Who are these who have ripped my order and my brothers out of my hands?’ he shouted. Once when he saw a new building that he thought the community had erected for itself in disregard of the rule of poverty he climbed up to the roof and began prying off the tiles and throwing them to the ground. Breaking with his earlier gentle practice he cursed people who opposed his ideas.

Francis is indeed a good example of what in the annals of history might be called the ‘inconvenient elder’: the person who starts the revolution and then once it succeeds becomes an inconvenience, even an embarrassment, to the next generation. (Think of Gandhi.) They honor him – they have to – but they wish he would go away so that they could work ‘within the system’ and relax a little.”

While the Church revered Francis and within two years of his death he was canonized, the transition to a bureaucratic organization was made complete. An elaborate basilica was built over his crypt with a palace to house visiting dignitaries. Acocella writes, “This was the Church’s tribute to the man who never possessed more than one tunic and who forbade his men to own even the roof over their heads. With the construction of the basilica, Franciscan poverty, the order’s foundational precept, became a pious fiction. It is hard to think of a single important Franciscan principle that was not violated.” One biographer called it Francis’s “second death.”

The sociologist Max Weber coined the term “routinization of charisma” to describe the natural tendency of revolutionary movements to be institutionalized and domesticated. The death of the founder is both celebrated and seen as a moment to establish an organization to carry on the work. Unfortunately, the unique work along with the principles are forgotten and replaced with a self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

The Apostle Paul said as much to the elders in Ephesus when he knew he was speaking to them for the last time: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God…I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!”

I have watched founders stay too long and place an organization in jeopardy. As well, I have seen founders leave without the foundational precepts so firmly established that these precepts do become a pious fiction. Anyone who has started an organization should think this through. How do you cede control without abdicating? How do you release your grip without abandoning the vision? How do you know the difference between true shepherds and wolves?

Perhaps this is just the way things are. No one can live with a permanent revolution. Organizations mature and the wise inconvenient elder knows how long to stay or when to step aside – or when to start another revolution.

 

My book “Where The Light Divides” is available on Amazon

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  • Avatar
    Brent Hample
    Reply

    Thank you for this, Fred. Especially for giving me a new image of St. Francis – in his older years. (I would like add Martin Luther also as an ‘inconvenient elder’ after his reforming of the Catholic Church.) When I transitioned as the CEO out of a ministry I helped found in 1994, a resource my Board and I found very helpful was “Chief Executive Succession Planning: Essential Guidance for Boards and CEOs”, by Nancy Axelrod. With a few good resources like this – including the Gathering – and much prayer, my leaving felt more like a last dance with my Board, instead of a messy divorce. And I do wonder if there is a new revolution waiting for me, or at least a few that I can help some younger souls to instigate – Haha!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Brent. The revolution awaits!

  • Avatar
    Joe McIlhaney
    Reply

    This comes at a perfect time as I have been called back by our Board to resume the role as CEO of a non profit I founded in 1992. Sort of a profound time!

  • Avatar
    Dave Evans
    Reply

    Fred – great article. Great idea. And… great job of implementing your own counsel in the wise leadership continuance you’ve executed in bringing on Josh @ the Gathering.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Dave! It’s a new market for you, isn’t it? You are so well-positioned for this.

  • Avatar
    Kent Lutz
    Reply

    Fred, I helped build a leading family business center at the University of Cincinnati with the primary focus of CEO succession, next generation development, and Board governance. I have seen and helped with almost all scenarios dealing with succession planning and can certainly share many stories. In fact, I should write a book about them. My experience with that along with my present Encore role as Associate Professor Entrepreneurship/Finance at the University followers 30 years as an Entrepreneur and Fortune 500 VP. I am happy to share and speak about my experiences at any. In fact the late Bob Buford and his Half Time Conference had a great influence on me. God Bless you and your work at the Gathering.

    Sincerely,

    Kent Lutz

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Kent! That is so encouraging to hear about Bob’s book and Half-Time. As you know, transition is not easy and requires attention from all parties. We have – so far – a good one.

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