Learning from Benedict of Nursia

Or: How to successfully launch and run a multinational corporation

Or: How to prosper in times of transformation

Photograph of St. Benedict by Radomil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

When hearing of Benedictine monks, most of us think of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 movie “The Name of the Rose”, which was based on Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name, published in 1980.

The book is a historical murder mystery set in a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy, where in the year 1327 a Franciscan and Dominican delegation meet to dispute the theological concept of Apostolic poverty. Soon enough, the debate is severely disturbed by the deaths of various monks of the monastery, and as we follow the Franciscan monk William of Baskerville on his trail to resolve the murders, we learn not only about theological concepts and heresy, but also about medieval life, the structure of a monastery – and in the end: love.

The book is a creative mix of historic, theological and philosophical concepts, events and persons, but the meetings of these delegations are a historical fact.

At the time of this dispute, the Benedictine order (Ordo Sancti Benedictis, OSB) is already 900 years old and has grown to be one of the most important pillars of the Catholic church.

Quite an achievement for Benedict, the son of a Roman Nobleman who left Rome around 500 B.C. to find some quiet place away from the big city.

Living on the edge of two ages

Benedict lived in interesting times. At the time of his birth Julius Nepos, the last “official” emperor had died, and the Western Roman empire had officially come to a stop[i]. Rome was going through a massive transformation with unclear ruling structures, civil wars and a cultural shift brought about by migrant tribes settling in the empire’s capital and provinces.

In all this turmoil, life is still good for members of the Roman nobility, and nothing prevents Benedict to do like his ancestors did, to quietly live off the income the family’s large estates generated. However: Benedict prefers the solitude of the Subiaco valley to the pulsing live of the capital, he settles as a hermit, and soon after followers flock to his place to share his life and vision. Around 530 already twelve monastic communities exist in and around Subiaco.

Benedict had not invented monastic life. Congregations had been around for 200 years and more, and so were rule books on how to run a congregation of monks, but it was Benedict’s pragmatic approach to find a moderate path between individual zeal and institutional order that made his work, the Regula Benedicti (Rule of Saint Benedict) one of the most influential works of the early Medieval age. Today, 40’000 monks all over the globe are dedicating their life to the service of God and mankind – and they do this following the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Reading this, one might wonder: What makes an organization endure more than 1’500 years on a continent shaken by war, plagues, famine, culture clashes – and not only endure, but expand? And – being modern managers – which concepts could we copy or adapt to render our own organizations more effective in times of transformation?

Success factor 1: take advantage from the strong appeal of intrinsic motivators

In modern organizations we have established a culture of managing by objectives – setting goals and rewarding achievement with financial payments. Albeit many of the Benedictine congregations can be considered as wealthy, individual possessions of the monks are frugal. So if these extrinsic motivators seem not to work – what does?

in 1975[ii] the American psychologist Edward L. Deci, came up with the concept of intrinsic motivators, detailing them into three main streams:

  • Purpose. Purpose answers our yearning to be part of something larger than yourselves. For members of the Benedictine order, the primary purpose of their calling is to serve God, but not only in prayer and meditation, but in concrete service to God’s works and creation, most of fellow men.
  • Mastery describes your urge to get better and better at what you do. Every congregation is organized as a self-sufficient cell, assembling members with a variety of professions. Usually, a monastery’s member remains in the profession originally chosen and perfects his professional skills. Even the few administrative roles of the monastery – the abbot (= CEO), the prior (= COO and stand-in of the CEO) and the cellerar (= CFO) continue to pursue their original profession to the benefit of the congregation.

These findings are useful to managers of knowledge workers in modern-day tech corporations for two reasons: First they demonstrate the need for employers to demonstrate the purpose of their company. Why are we here? What purpose does or corporation serve? “Shareholder value” is not a good enough answer. And second: We need to be able to demonstrate and prove to our employees that we take their willingness to develop not just as an optional benefit, but that this willingness is a requirement to join our team.

Success factor 2: adopt a decentral structure

Deci has listed a third prime intrinsic motivator: Autonomy. How is this need answered in a monastic order? Given our experience with religious organizations, we might suspect a highly efficient command-and-control hierarchy. That is not the case: The Benedictine order does not know a generalate or motherhouse with jurisdiction over the monasteries, priories and abbeys. Each congregation is not only self-sufficient, it is a self-governing unit with its own functional and structural body – a company of its own, loosely coupled to sister companies in a federation of abbeys.

Though the members of the congregation are subjects to the abbot’s absolute power, but this power gains legitimation from the abbot being elected in a democratic vote.

The Rule allows the houses a high level of adaptability in order to integrate into their environment completely and to remain agile in the face of changes – even a modification of the Rule of Benedict to better accommodate local requirements is possible.

Translating this into the structures of knowledge-based companies: Hierarchical command-and-control organizations are a relic of the industrial age, where one omniscient patron reigned over legions of uneducated workers. Agile and flexible organizations constantly strive to delegate as much as decision power as possible to the edge, where autonomous team meet with customers to understand and satisfy their needs.

Success factor 3: take the pragmatic approach

In the chapter describing the abbot’s role and personality, St. Benedict establishes the “discretio” as the most important requirement, which can be best translate with a “feeling for the feasible”, a very fine sensory for what the needs of the individual members of the congregations are and how they can best be aligned with the needs of the collective. Discretio helps the abbot to decide with temperance between general rule and individual need and between the feasible and the ideal.

For a leader in today’s business world this means that whatever strategy is developed and communicated by the corporate board, the pragmatic application of this strategy to a real-life customer situation wins the game.

Success factor 4: Embrace diversity

In Benedict’s times, society followed patrician rule. Families, states and organizations were run by the nobility – and nobility referred to descent, experience and age. In his Rule, Benedict demonstrates his famous pragmatism also when it comes to taking difficult decisions: Not only the abbot and the elders shall be included, but Benedict explicitly mentions the younger members of the congregation to be consulted. The younger members deliver valuable input, exactly because they have not decades of experience. They are less bound by traditions and more willing to call things what they are. Benedict knows: The experience of the old and the passion of the young enable the congregation to find solutions that might be better adapted to a challenge.

Today’s diversity options go beyond integrating the young and the old. In a 2015 report, consultancy company McKinsey stated that for companies chances to outperform their goals are 15% higher in a gender diverse environment and as high as 35% for corporations going beyond gender integration.[iii]

Success factor 5: promote a healthy work / life balance

“Ora et labora” – pray and work – has become the Benedictine order’s tagline. Interesting enough, this well-known slogan has become one of the most misunderstood passages of the Rule of Benedict, often interpreted as “pray and work and do nothing else”. Whereas it is true that Benedict is no friend of idleness, the notion of keeping the monks busy at all times is wrong. The passage should be understood in a way that “doing work is great, but there must be time for the soul to rest”. As a man of the creed, it was clear to Benedict that the resting place of the soul would be prayer. In order to grant the balance between work and prayer, the daily routine of Benedictine monks is structured in a rigid sequence of three hour slots. After three hours of work the monks are called to prayer, and the joint recital of psalms has a meditative and calming effect.

As work life has become for today’s knowledge workers has become more demanding, so has the need for regular rest become more immanent. Fixed ritualized routine can help the creativity up, and quite a few organizations have started to install rest rooms in their office environment so employees can take a “fueling up” rest.

Success factor 6: enable the learning organization

In the times of Benedict, education was still a privilege of nobility. It was reserved to members of nobility to acquire the valuable scrolls and manuscripts of the masters of ancient age, and it was their privilege to be able to read them. Benedict understood the power of the written word and encouraged his monks to learn and practice reading. It did not take many generations of monks for the Benedictine order to invent a splendid business model: The monasteries offered their scripture services to any nobleman interested in having a valuable manuscript copied for his own use – under the condition that the congregation was allowed to create a 2nd copy for themselves. Thus Benedictine abbey fast became fortresses of knowledge – holding high the torch of ancient wisdom through the entire Middle age. For many of the congregations, copying was not enough. It was in the authority of the abbot to grant access to the books he deemed fit for his monks to read, and amongst the collected works were not only books on philosophy and theology, but also works on agriculture, optics, architecture and medicine which the monks use to exercise and refine their skills.

The thought that all available knowledge has already been written down and only needs to be cross-referenced has become reality with the general availability of knowledge through the Internet. It comes to no surprise that modern authors describe a reform of education an knowledge work in a way that not the memorization of facts and figures will be considered as education, but the effective way to research that knowledge[iv]. For modern entrepreneurs this means that the available knowledge both in outside sources as well as in the heads of the employees must be cultivated and harvested in order to secure a competitive advantage.

A rule for the postmodern age

Books referencing books referencing books – a deeply postmodern concept, and the prime Leitmotiv of Umberto Eco’s book.

Just as Benedict was experiencing in his lifetime, Eco’s book is staged at another crucial moment of transformation in medieval history, a moment when the Church engaged in a last battle trying defend the unity of doctrine against sheer masses of digressing lines of faith.

It is no wonder that Benedict’s Rule, a simple cookbook for collective life in times of transformation, was the perfect guidance for Eco’s novel. Even applied to today’s challenges, the Rule provides a surprisingly fresh approach towards leadership in ti

[i]   Julius “the nephew” Nepos was the last emperor of the Western Roman empire who received official endorsement by the Eastern Roman empire, at that time the most powerful organization in the Mediterranean sphere of influence


[ii]   Deci, Edward L.: “Intrinsic motivation” New York, 1975


[iii]   Hunt, Vivian & Layton, Dennis & Prince, Sara: “Why diversity matters”, London, January 2015


[iv]  Carr, Nicholas: „The Shallows“, New York 2010


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