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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

3 Surprising Leadership Lessons I Learned From (Wait for it) Nuns

People make a joke when I tell them that Catholic nuns are some of the best managers and leaders I have ever met.

“Because they rule with an iron ruler,” one colleague guffawed at me. Yeah, yeah. Angry nuns wielding rulers over recalcitrant children is a stereotype that the sisters just can’t seem to shake.

What most people forget is that Catholic nuns are both entrepreneurs and leaders. These are women who ran hospitals and grade schools and were among the very first female presidents of universities. They have been sitting in management positions for the past century.

Nuns are collaborators, delegators, and team players. They don’t rule with an iron fist or an iron ruler. In fact, they do just the opposite.

Over the past three years, I set out to shatter the stereotypes about nuns while reporting and writing my new book, If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission. And along the way, the nuns helped me become a much better manager and leader.

Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned on the journey.

1. Nuns Get it Done

Hanging out with a bunch of Catholic nuns is the exact opposite of what you'd think it would be. In fact, it’s similar to a brainstorming jam session at a startup—an incredibly effective one.

What is left unsaid in the title of my book is that if nuns ruled the world, “sh*t would get done.”

Nuns stand apart from other inspiring executives for three major reasons. They are masters of delegation, communication, and ingenuity. Most importantly, they lead with a moral compass. Not a faith-and-religion-on-your-sleeve moral compass, but the kind that makes decisions based on what is best for everyone involved.

When I think about that, I think about Sister Joan Dawber, who built one of the only safe houses for female victims of human slavery in New York City. I think about Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, who recently completed a $9 million luxury apartment building to provide affordable housing to female ex-felons and their children.

I think about Sister Simone Campbell, who wanted to rally America to fight against the Republican budget in 2012 that would have slashed life-saving social services for the poor. She didn’t just talk about it. She led a road trip of “Nuns on the Bus” across the country to showcase the people who would have their lives put in jeopardy.

In each of these cases, there was no wavering, no waiting to plow through red tape, no moment of doubt. They saw a problem that needed a solution, and they immediately took action.

2. A Leader is Only as Good as the Team

Time and time again, I found that nuns were more focused on the success of the organization and the team than they were on their own success.

In 2011, Sister Nora Nash confronted Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein over the excessive amount the company’s executives were paid that year in the midst of one of the worst recessions to hit the United States in decades. When I approached her to interview her for the book, she balked. “I don’t see myself as the subject of a book,” she said. It took a long time to crack through her humility.

Sister Nora and her assistant director, Tom McCaney, have taken to task the grocery store chain Kroger over the rights of farm workers, Hershey’s chocolate company over child labor, McDonald’s over childhood obesity, Walmart on raising its minimum wage, and Wells Fargo over predatory lending practices.

She was insistent that I include McCaney in addition to numerous other team members who helped her to achieve their goals. In fact, she would have rather that I wrote about the team as a whole, instead of her.

Sister Carol Barnes serves on The Foundling board of trustees overseeing quality and mission integration for the nonprofit that serves thousands of children and families in crisis in New York City.

“For me as a leader, I think about how I can serve the mission of the organization. That is the primary responsibility,” Sister Carol said to me when I asked her about her leadership strategies. “The second thing is to identify the individuals who enable me to enlarge my own leadership ability. I’m a team leader. I value open discussion.”

3. Enjoy the Journey

Sister Rosemarie Nassif, who oversees the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Initiative and its Catholic Education Programs, is one of the happiest people I have ever met. She loves every single part of her job, from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Before joining the Foundation, she was senior advisor to the assistant secretary at the Department of Education, where she had led responsibility for achieving President Obama's 2020 College Completion Goal. She has also served as president of two universities: Holy Names in Oakland and Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore. She’s kind of a big deal.

But when I asked what was the best part of that, she replied very simply: “All of it.”
Rosemarie gave me a bookmark with 10 commandments of leadership that she created, and that idea is number one—love the journey. The rest of the commandments are just as inspiring, so much so that I printed it out five times and I read it every day. Now, I think about it before I call team meetings or implement a new project.

  1. Love the journey.
  2. Live and work your passions.
  3. Make mistakes.
  4. Give yourself away each and every day.
  5. Always be grateful.
  6. Integrity is your most powerful asset.
  7. Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.
  8. Vision, no matter how right, can only be delivered through relationships.
  9. Success is only success if everyone feels the win.
  10. Don’t overcomplicate.

Looking back, I am a better manager and leader for having nuns in my life. I’m not a religious person, but I have faith that the nuns will always get a job done right.

Photo of nuns courtesy of Gary Yim / Shutterstock.