April 8, 2009 - Reverend Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, addressed the Hauenstein Center’s Peter Cook Leadership Fellows at their April meeting.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today’s social problems. As a result of these concerns, Father Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.
As president of the Acton Institute, Father Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, London Financial Times, Washington Times, Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS’ 60 Minutes, among others.
Hauenstein Center Director Gleaves Whitney introduced Father Sirico to the Leadership Academy Fellows. After taking the floor, Father Sirico began his talk by praising the Hauenstein Center’s founding benefactor:
“I need to say right at the outset how honored I am to be participating in an event at the Hauenstein Center because of my very high regard for Ralph Hauenstein. He and his wife have been friends just about as long as I’ve been in Grand Rapids, and I don’t know if you’ve gotten to know him … but always something new pops up…. He is a discreet man, a very modest man. You have to kind of drag out of him these little events, and one of these that I found so fascinating is that he was actually at the Second Vatican Council in 1962 or 1963. I’ve forgotten which session he was at. But we were talking about his remembrances of that, for a Catholic that was the notable event in our lifetime…. So to speak under the banner of this Center is a particular honor, and to speak on this topic is a particular honor.”
“One of the most essential characteristics of a leader is integrity. The story that goes with integrity, I heard it a number of years ago, has always stuck with me as speaking a real truth. It’s a man who was going out on a picnic with a lady that he rather liked, and they decided that they were just going to pick up some fried chicken at a shop on their way out to a meadow, and spread out a blanket and just sit and talk. So they stopped at the shop. They ordered two boxes of the chicken. They went out to the meadow. They put out the blanket, took the boxes out, and the drinks out. When the lady opened the box she looked at him and he looked at her, and she looked at the box and said, ‘Look at this.’ It was a box filled with money, all these tightly stacked bills that were wrapped. He looked at it and he realized that what they were holding in their hands was the deposit. By the size of it, probably a whole weeks worth of deposit for this little Kentucky Fried Chicken stand. So he said to his lady friend, ‘Why don’t you just stay here and let me go back to the shop and give them this money and get our chicken.
“So he went back down the road and he called the manager over and he showed him this. The manager turned white as a ghost and he said, ‘We had no idea. It just looked like any other box. We would have gone out of business if we hadn’t made this deposit. Thank you so much for bringing it back.’ And he said, ‘Well I just need the chicken because I have someone waiting for me.’ [The manager says] ‘No, no, no. I have to thank you in some way. Of course you won’t pay for the chicken. What can I do?’ [The man responds] ‘No, no. I just want the chicken because I’m kind of, you know, on a date and I want to go back.’ [The manager interjects] ‘No, no, no. You wait here. I’m going to call the television station — the newspaper — because you’re such a good example of an honest person. You could have gone away and we would have never known who had that, but let me just….’ [The man interrupts.] ‘No don’t do that.’ [The manager says] ‘No, I insist.’ [The man interrupts again] ‘Don’t do it.’ The manager looks at him and says, ‘What’s the matter? You are a good example of a man with integrity’ He says, ‘Please do not do that because the woman I am with is not my wife.’”
“Isn’t that interesting, how a person can live a duplicitous life. What is integrity? Integrity is being in the inside what you appear to be on the outside. This does not mean a person of integrity is a person who is perfect – you know not all hypocrites are … imperfect people. Someone once said with regard to integrity, ‘We have to be seamless,’ and that a hypocrisy itself is the homage that vice pays to virtue. Think about that: the homage the vice pays to virtue is what hypocrisy is. So even hypocrites are saying there is a standard. A person of integrity is not a perfect person. They are attempting to be perfect, and they live a seamless life so that there is no great surprise if you discover something about a person. So one of the first qualities of leadership, it seems to me, is that you are seamless, not that you have to disclose everything to everyone at all times and in all places, but that there is a consistency in your life, a real authenticity, a consistency.”
“The second thing I would say … is necessary for good leadership is a passion. You know it’s, I suppose, easier to be somewhat passionate when one is younger. I know that one of the great traits of youth is that sense of idealism and somehow it gets worn away over the years because you see things that you didn’t think were there. Maybe you’ve seen people who are not people of integrity, people who you respected, and somehow that seeps like an acid into our souls and can sap us of this sense of passion which is so energizing.
“I dread the possibility that young people will settle for mediocrity. And that is so easy to do, especially if you’re bright and you can kind of get away with things because you’re glib in your manner and you don’t have to study quite as hard as maybe somebody else. You don’t really need to finish what you’re doing because the appearance of it will look like you finished it…. The problem over time is that it saps your passion. You begin to settle for mediocrity, and once you begin to sap your passion your energy begins to dissipate. You yourself, as a person, no longer attract the kind of relationships, the kind of trust, and enthusiasm for a cause, for a project, that you are involved in. I think it is Saint John Christendom, one of the Greek fathers of the Church said, ‘There is nothing colder than the heart of a Christian who no longer cares for the souls of other people.’ And so often, even in religious leadership, there’s a kind of coldness, drabness that rests simply on formality that rests simply on ritual. But ritual, or liturgy as we call it, a public work of the church, must always be a belief that is put into action. And if one exercises that kind of presidential role as a leader of prayer in the liturgy of the church but doesn’t believe, doesn’t have the passion for what one believes, it comes across, It’s seen. It’s amazing how two people can say the same thing and one can bore you to sleep and the other can enthuse you and inspire you. Without that passion, without something that you are willing to die for — literally — you lack something to live for.”
“The great sadness of this particular moment in our history, in many respects, is this desire to have all your options open at all times. People mistake having lots of options with having freedom, and you see this when you call a person on the phone and you ask them if they want to come over for dinner next weekend and they are kind of hesitant and say, ‘Let me let you know.’ And you have this sense that they’re waiting to see if they can get a better offer…. You know the truth of the matter is that at the end of the day if you have a thousand options and you haven’t exercised any of them, what have you got? Just options. But if at the end of the day you make a choice from among your options, a choice that demands your all, to which you will commit yourself — to which you will give your passion — that will vivify you, that will inspire you, that will cost you Then you have a mission, not just a set of options. For many of you, for most of you probably, this will occur when you find that right person, whom you love, and you relinquish all other options and you marry that one person for life. You commit yourself to that, and that makes the exercise of your liberty mean something.”
“We come into this world with this great potential but there has to be some formation that takes place. What will we do with this potential? I was looking at the screen, and I saw one of the quotations from Ralph Hauenstein where he says he has witnessed … some of the worst leadership in the world. He has witnessed what leadership can do when it is driven by evil. So these are people who are malformed, who did not take into themselves and understanding of their own being, their own essence, their destiny, what they can do in the good … and the sacrifice that’s required. So the formation takes place, not just … in your family, not just in your educational process, but more fundamentally it takes place in your own soul. You can have all of this stuff poured over you, but [formation does not occur] until you can take it and own it yourself…. You take what is given, what you see in the lives of others, what you read in literature. One of the great elements of human formation is to read the history of great people — great men, great women — who have lived, who have faced challenges, who themselves have made sacrifices, and then to internalize that and to ask yourself where in your life this can fit.”
“The other thing is identity. Over the temple of the Oracle of Delphi, you remember the famous thing: ‘Know thyself.’ This is the root of identity: self knowledge. And I will be very honest with you, and I say this to you both as a pastor (a person who spent many, many hours just quietly counseling people, dealing with people at some of the most difficult moments of their lives), and as a person who himself goes to confession and has undergone conversion…. The hardest thing, the scariest thing, is to discover who you are. It really is the hardest thing. We think, ‘This is who I am, I’m the son or the daughter of so and so and I grew up here, and this is my ethnicity, and this is my religion….’ There’s a level deeper than all of that…. Knowing who you are, knowing yourself better than anybody else knows you, means that you are no longer at the disposal of other human beings to pull your chain. Now, I’ve made that sound like it’s a decision It’s really a process. You just make a commitment to knowing who you are and then when somebody points out something to you that is not favorable to you but that you know exists, you can say, ‘You know, you are right, and in fact what you didn’t know was that this, this, and this….’ But the important thing is that you know what they are touching on. They no longer control you, because your self-awareness needs to be greater than anyone else’s knowledge of you. It’s the greatest source of peace other than — I’m a priest so I have to say this because I believe it — other than a right relationship with God. It’s the greatest source of peace, to know yourself, your identity, because then you’re not playing to the crowds anymore. Then you’re not at other people’s behest. If you know yourself better than anyone else knows you, it’s amazing the level at which you can help other people.”
“[There is] another aspect … I think is so important, especially in our current culture so permeated as it is by constant contact with other people. We are the most connected people. I have had, this morning, alone, invitations to link up with somebody on whatever that’s called. They put me on Facebook. I still haven’t figured out that mystery. I understand the Trinity better than I understand Facebook…. We are the most connected people in the history of the world, internationally connected, yet we’re probably one of the most lonely people. So what we need here is to carve out for ourselves in the midst of all of our busyness, not just being human doings, but being human beings. We need some time everyday to be…. I think about things I need to accomplish, not just in the to do list sense but in the bigger broader sense of what to do…. I encourage you to, in your busyness, carve out some space just to be, to think in an unstructured way. We have lots of structure. Reading is important, all of that, formation those kinds of things. But just allow the most creative, the most innovative aspects of who you are, your highest ideals, to come out so that that period can be enriching.”
“Openness. Now, I’m not talking about being so open minded your brains fall out, because you know it makes no sense if you say, ‘Well, I’m open.’ I’m not talking about being so open that nothing makes any sense, because I think the openness has to go hand and hand with identity. You have to know who you are, but you also have to be open from that perspective so that you are able to engage people. Tolerance is not acquiescence to the ideas, opinions, or lifestyles with whom you disagree. Tolerances is precisely not coercing them. It is tolerating. Tolerance presupposes a stance that disagrees with what you are tolerating. But openness means … you need to hear what somebody is really saying first.
You know all of these wonderful little communication techniques, that if you haven’t done it yet you come to me for marriage counseling, you’ll do it. Say to your spouse what the spouse is saying. It’s remarkably difficult for people initially to do that. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re saying, now let me tell you what I think.” No, no, no. This is your time to say, ‘What I hear you say is….’ It’s all very simple and sounds artificial at first, but what it does is it sensitizes you to really listen. How many times have you talked with somebody and you see them just waiting for you to shut up so they can tell you? Somebody said, ‘There’s nothing so rare as to be heard by another person.’ So I say open, but not so open that you forget who you are or what you have to contribute. This is important in management, to be open to people who support you, hearing what people really have to say. It’s not that you have to agree with them, or their life, or whatever it happens to be, but to be open. This is important, especially in management positions, because sometimes the people who have more information than you do are afraid to inform you. If you don’t give off that you are willing to listen to what a person is saying, if you don’t communicate to people, there’s going to be a lot that goes on that you don’t know about, and that will come and bite you later on. It’s much better to be open enough to hear criticism and to take what parts of it really apply.”
“Another important characteristic for leaders is a sense of calling, a sense that what you are doing transcends what you’re doing, that what you touch in the material world has ramifications eternally. That can be how you fire, how you hire, how you allocate resources, but to come at what you do with a sense that there is a transcendent vocation…. We are called from the reality of who we are, that’s why identity is important, so we have to understand our nature in order to understand our calling.”
Gleaves Whitney and Father Sirico posed for a photo.
Father Sirico and 99-year-old Bill Martindill discussed their ideas on leadership.
Leadership Academy fellows Sandra Meyers and Allie Bush posed for a photo.
Deb Snow, Marilyn Titche, and Gleaves Whitney posed for a photo.
Leadership Academy fellows Brooke Rowland and Sarah Barber discussed their interest in Father Sirico’s talk.
Nam Nguyen, Bill Weitzel, Bill Brennan, and Zak Weston discussed Zak’s collegiate plans.