When I was a senior in college, I had the great privilege of acting as our club baseball team’s president. Since there was no active faculty involved with the team, that meant that I was also the coach. Between the vice president and myself, we petitioned for money from the school, recruited people to sign up, ran practices, paid for regular expenses, and coached games. It was an incredible experience with incredible results. We went 13-2 in the regular season, good enough to win our division, then went 3-1 in the regional tournament, earning a berth to the Club Baseball World Series in Pennsylvania–this from a team that had went 0-7 and 6-4 in the previous two years! Even though we didn’t play well in the World Series, it was a storybook end to my baseball career and one of the fondest memories I will ever have.
At the time, I was very proud of myself. Naturally, I was proud of the whole team, but I really did work hard to make us successful. While the vice president definitely helped, I felt that it was my ambition, persistence, and creativity that fueled the team. The budget I submitted was detailed and professional (which led to us receiving the third highest budget of any team, a huge increase from the year before), I got people to actually come to practice twice a week (more than six once a week was a success in previous years), found an abandoned baseball field near the school and worked to clean it up for practices (the previous two years we practiced on a community soccer field), convinced the varsity baseball coach to let us use the school’s batting cages on their off day (restoring a relationship that been ruined years before by a previous club president), and didn’t stop recruiting until the final week of roster closures (the week we picked up our eventual RF and #2 hitter, and a defunct varsity pitcher). At the time, as I said, I was proud of myself.
That was until I checked in with the team the year after I left. When I left, they were set up to repeat and had real reason to think that they would be even more successful. In essence, they lost me, another senior who only played in the final weekend, and our number 3 pitcher. They still had their top two pitchers (one was probably the best pitcher in the division, and the other guy finished with an ERA under 1.00 the year before), still had their entire lineup save the #3 hitter, and had an entire class of new freshmen coming in. So what happened? Did they repeat and go to the World Series? No. They finished below .500, had to forfeit a number of games, missed the playoffs entirely.
When I lamented about this to a friend, they thought I was bragging, as if to say, “Look how much they needed me. They couldn’t do anything without me.” That wasn’t my first thought. When I saw the immediate drop in results with almost no loss in talent, I realized that I had actually failed them in setting up the team for the long run.
I think a problem we all have when we are passionate about something and want to make it successful is an “I can do it” attitude. What do I mean by this? I’m not talking about initiative or confidence in oneself; this sort of “I can do it” attitude is something all leaders need. Rather, I’m talking about the sort of “I can do it” attitude that does not include others in the building process, in a sense saying “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done right.” Sometimes it is an issue of control and lack of trust in others, other times it is simply a failure to identify talents in others and offer them opportunities to succeed even if “I can do it” better. I think my attitude was somewhere in between the two.
For me, this was my last shot at playing baseball and I made it my highest priority. Was I really going to take chances with guys who weren’t as passionate?
And it was successful…
For one year. What I did was make sure everything was done right; what I failed to do was empower anyone else to care to do it that way once I was gone.
As friars, it can be very tempting to lead our ministries in this way. And who can blame us? In many cases, we’re the most capable of doing any job around the parish: we’re passionate about our ministry and want it to do well, are highly trained with graduate degrees and many years of preparation, and are definitely the most responsible if something were to go wrong. “If I can do it, why wouldn’t I? It is my job.” Add a generally likable personality to the mix, and there’s almost a guarantee for success.
But what happens when a) that specific friar is transferred to a new fraternity, b) a parishioner moves to another church not run by an “I can do it” priest, or God forbid, c) we have to turn the ministry back over to the diocese because we can no longer staff it? If all we have ever done is lead from the top, making all of the decisions and making sure everything is done perfectly, if all we have ever done has been to lead with an “I can do it” (so no one else has to) attitude, then the people we serve will never know that they can do it too. And they can.
I admire our friars who do this so well, leading with the people they serve as the people they serve, empowering them to take an active part in leadership. Because, when you think about it, we are shepherds, not CEOs. We are not owners or kings, we are guides and supporters. The Church does not belong to us nor does it require us to function properly. It belongs to the people of God, and it is our role to make sure they are passionate about and capable of taking up their own cross, not to make sure it is successful at all costs.
Coaching baseball for one year in college will no doubt be one of my fondest memories for the rest of my life because of our success, but it will also be one of the most important memories for me in effective leadership. If all we want is short-term gains, do it ourselves; if we want to make something lasting and worthwhile, we have to build people up and empower them to lead it with us. Coaching that year taught me that “I can do it” can certainly lead to success, but the sort of success I really desire can only be won with an attitude of “we can do it!”