The Meaning of Fast-Tracking a Saint


The path to sainthood for John Paul II was the fastest in modern history, raising eyebrows among traditionalists for packing a painstaking process that can sometimes take centuries into nine incredibly short years.[1]

Whether John Paul II should or shouldn’t be a saint isn’t the issue I am addressing here. This blog addresses the question of why the Catholic church has fast-tracked this process and the social meaning it reveals. I have been long intrigued (and amused) at the scientific-rational approach used to make the decision as to who can be legitimized as a Saint.   When a rational approach is used to judge whether a miracle is “instantaneous, lasting and clearly attributable to divine intervention”, the church is always going to be in trouble, because it is using a modernist/rational frame to identify a non-rational/spiritual phenomena. If we look at this process in reverse, it is the equivalent of letting priests pray over a new airoplane to pass it as safe to fly… pray for our safety by all means, but even the most devout would want a rational safety check before flying.   The modernist/rational domain, and the religious/spiritual domain cannot be fully separated, for religion exists in the modern context, and has to operate with reference to modern/rational thought- albeit always with some healthy tension between the domains. When this works well, sacred space can alert society to subjective truths, to all that is beyond the functional and rational, and help us reflect on how we live personally, collectively and with the natural world. Likewise the modern/rational domain can alert the sacred domain when it’s faith becomes distorted or perverse, in ways that need challenging in a modern pluralist society. Both domains must maintain enough difference from each other, because if they stray too far into each others territory both can become dangerously distorted. We see this occur when religious fundamentalism takes a leading role in modern politics (no matter whether in the middle east or the USA) the results are at best a mess, and at worst bring forth disaster. Likewise in the workplace beware of spirituality being advocated by leaders and writers who claim it increases productivity, employee engagement and improves the bottom line[2]. This is a perverse use of spirituality however authentically intended, and is another example of how one domain gets distorted when being used in the wrong space.

Today we live in a consumer society, a world where short-termism rules and instant gratification is demanded, and it is in this context that the Catholic church has short-circuited the process to fast-track John Paul II to sainthood. At his funeral calls for making him a saint were already being demanded by the zealous faithful….immediate gratification of their desires were soon to be fulfilled.    By omitting the need for a second miracle (two are needed to become a saint, John Paul II has one), and rushing the process achieves two things:

1)       It undermines the so-called modern/rational process for selecting a saint. Pope Francis is saying ‘this rational criteria for choosing a Saint is nonsense, its clear John Paul II is a Saint, so lets not go through a process that is mere pretence to prove it.’

2)      It aligns the ‘eternal and sacred’ process of choosing a Saint, with our modern, consumer society that is governed by instant gratification and short-termism in all things.

With the first point I believe progress is being made, as it undermines the need for rational verification of sainthood, moving towards the position whereby the sacred and secular are differentiated. With the second point I believe the Catholic church is stepping into dangerous territory. John Paul II is very marketable for the church, and his rapid rise to sainthood will give the church short-term leverage and kudos, whilst creating problems for the future. By reacting to consumer demand for his instant sainthood, and banking his immediate charismatic popularity, means that similar demands will just grow and grow and the church will look more and more like the materialist, consumerist and short-termist society, it claims it wants to change. The Washington post already reports talk of fast-tracking others “to pave the way to the quicker elevation of potential blockbuster saints such as Mother Teresa”.  As we see, Sainthood could soon begin to mimic modern, celebrity culture.

We need sacred spaces that open up our lives beyond rationality, functionalism, efficiency and beyond the modern faith of materialism and consumerism. Scientific-rationalism doesn’t account for the mystical, ethereal and the beauty and love that cannot be measured or accounted for in the market place.   The whole point of spirituality and religion is to open us to a different space, an eternal space, a liminal space, a ritualistic space, a holy space…. call it what you want, and access it how you choose, but this ‘spiritual space’ is one that should be protected and we lose it at our peril.

Leadership Lessons

1)       Leaders know your domain: don’t use the wrong philosophy or belief system in the wrong place.

2)      Think of the impact of short-term gains. Instant gratification will appease some people but may store longer term problems (i.e. the financial crisis!). A major difference between family owned and commercial businesses is the time-span issue. Family businesses think about the next generation and offer a better model of how commercial businesses should be run.

Coaching lessons

1)       Help leaders map their domain, if you hear them talking spirituality in order to gain personal kudos or more from their employees, challenge them!

2)   Push leaders to reflect on the longer term consequences of a short-term intervention.   And don’t collude with them to get your own instant gratification as a coach!



[2]See Leadership a critical text Western 2013 Sage Pubs, for full critique on spirituality at work.

The Chosen One – When ego distorts wisdom


Imagegetty images

When Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager of Manchester United, one of world’s great soccer clubs, after 26 years of unprecedented success, the question of who could replace him was settled by AlexFerguson  himself. United could attract the very best managers but in the end, Ferguson, like an all-powerful monarch from the middle ages, named his own successor for the crown and David Moyes was selected and became known as The Chosen One.

Whilst Moyes had a lot of respect for managing Everton, a club that always did well considering its limited budget to buy players, he had never managed a club at the very top level, had no experience in European competitions, never won anything, and never beaten any of the very top teams in the premiership. In short his CV didn’t fit with the scale of the job in hand. Manchester United are a global business with revenues of around £420 million a year, owned by American financiers and floated on the stock exchange. Man Utd’s soccer competitors, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Barcelona would never had selected him as manager, so why did Fergusson choose him and why did Man Utd business leaders allow it to happen?
In the simplest terms we can say it was Ferguson’s Ego that led to the choice. I say this not using the Ego in a way that is derogatory – we all have egos and a snr leaders task in a high profile job is to harness their ego in service of their role – however sometimes this ego function serves them well and sometimes it gets distorted. Ferguson’s strength of character and Ego drive led him to overcome numerous set backs and deliver unrelenting success (he now shares his leadership skills at Harvard Business school with snr business leaders). Ferguson found retiring very difficult, he tried it once before and returned to the job. This time it seems that he couldn’t completely let go, so he unconsciously chose to leave a part of himself in the role of manager. He achieved this in two ways. Firstly, by personally choosing his successor – any future success would be identified with both the new manager and with Ferguson for choosing him. Secondly, he chose someone in his own image – Moyes was born in Glasgow a few miles from Ferguson’s home, they were from a similar background, shared a similar journey as a player then manager. Most of all, you can see the same gritty, Glaswegian no-nonsense way of talking, and their shared total dedication and work ethic. Ferguson saw in Moyes a younger self. If he could not continue to manage into his 80’s, then he would chose a person (an avatar) that would mimic him. Why did the business leaders allow Ferguson to make this choice… well his Ego had served the club well before, why not in this choice?

There was a collusion around the idea that Ferguson had become infallible – his Ego had distorted his and the business directors’ judgement.

Leadership lessons:

So what does this tell us about Ego and senior leadership?

Firstly, forget the hype about ego-free leaders and the New Age spirituality and Buddhist rhetoric entering the management field these days, claiming servant-leaders and post-heroic leaders need to lose their ego. They don’t! Snr leaders need to be aware of how they use their Ego drive in service of the task in hand, i.e. to serve their company, and also to be aware of how their Ego can distort their judgment too.
Secondly, A CEO or snr leader has to learn how to manage the projections from others that ‘feed the beast’ and support their Ego needs. When you achieve a lot of success, and when others are vying for your attention and approval, problems arise. It is not just the lack of a critical friends challenging decisions that happens. The emotional life of the leader is distorted, they begin to believe and feel they are infallible and can do anything (remember Bill Clinton – he felt so infallible that he had ‘sex’ in the White House, putting at risk his Presidency and all he had worked for his whole life).
Thirdly, many leaders with strong Ego’s are walking a precarious tightrope. It is their Ego drives that when harnessed to ‘doing good’ have led them and their companies to success. It is the same drive that can be their undoing as this case study shows.

Coaching lessons:

To be courageous, to speak the unspeakable to leaders, saying what others fear to say. To help leaders anchor their ego function to the task – to develop in the leader a self-awareness of how their Ego can lead to mission-drift by distorting reality, shaping the world to the ego needs, rather than shaping the company to the demands of the world.