Canadian Christian Relief & Development Association

January 2022

Subsidiarity and Leadership

By Ed Wilson, Long Run Consulting

Clement Atlee, who succeeded Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the end of the Second World War, was notorious for his reliance on cliches and platitudes in his discourse. For example, when Atlee was questioned why he largely remained silent at the Potsdam post-war conference with the Soviet Union and the United States and allowed his foreign minister Ernest Bevin to do all the talking, he had an answer ready.  “You don’t keep a dog and bark yourself,” he explained, “and Ernie is a very good dog.”

The proverb “Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself” dates back to 16th century English literature and is a succinct and down-to-earth way of articulating the meaning of the principle of subsidiarity.  Although the principle itself can be traced back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was first introduced in a formal way by the Catholic Church in the 19th century. Pope Pius XI provided one of the clearest formulations in 1931 when he stated:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.

Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, no. 39

In the simplest terms, the principle of subsidiarity teaches that, whether in government, business or any other realm of human collaboration, matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized authority. One writer on the topic uses the example of a commercial kitchen where you will find a head chef, an assistant head chef and all the sous-chefs who are each in charge of their own areas of expertise.  Without a question, the head chef is the leader of the team, but subsidiarity requires him to consult the sous-chefs on their area of expertise.  For example, she writes, “if he plans to serve lamb chop as a main for the dinner menu, he needs to consult with the sauce chef on what’s the most suitable sauce to go with this cut of meat.” Application of subsidiarity “prevents the stress of micromanaging on the part of the head chef and allows for creativity and attainment of mastery on the part of the sauce chef.” Likewise, the data administrator in a nonprofit organization who works with donor information every day is in the best position of anyone in the organization to make decisions on how to configure the CRM software to facilitate the production of reports requested by the director of philanthropy.

Subsidiarity is right not only because it makes good business sense but because it is rooted in the conviction that, as bearers of the image of God, human flourishing for managers and employees alike requires that we find opportunities to make the best possible use of our gifts and freedom.  “We develop best in our work when we use our gifts and freedom to achieve shared goals and to create and sustain right relationships with one another and with those served by the organization.  In other words, the more participatory the workplace, the more likely all workers will be able to develop their gifts and talents” (Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection, 16). Pope Pius XI described the assigning of work that a lesser organization can do to a higher association as an injustice, and stealing people’s opportunities to make decisions and use their gifts robs them of an essential part of their humanity (Respect in Action, 1).

I was not acquainted with the principle of subsidiarity by name until introduced to it by an Anglican priest (Rev. Kevin Dixon, now CEO of Wellspring Foundation for Education) who joined our team at International Justice Mission Canada in 2015, but by that time I had matured in leadership enough to understand that if you come to the C-suite looking for a throne (as certain of Jesus’ disciples did), you have severely misjudged the obligations of the role. Charles Handy explains that subsidiarity “implies that the power properly belongs, in the first place, lower down or further out. . .Those in the center are the servants of the parts. The task of the center, and of any leader, is to help the individual or the group to live up to their responsibilities, to enable them to deserve their subsidiarity” (The Age of Paradox, 146). Those who seek to follow this pattern of leadership will need to check their ego at the door.

Three Leadership Responsibilities

Leaders who wish to be guided by the principle of subsidiarity face three important culture-making tasks.  The first is to establish a corporate culture of trust. “When they embrace subsidiarity, leaders acknowledge that there are risks associated with inviting people to use their gifts and their own judgment. Accepting the risk inherent in trusting others, leaders affirm that the freedom and intelligence of employees should never be suppressed or disregarded” (Respect in Action, 27). It is this readiness to assume risk that makes subsidiarity different from delegation. The one who delegates confers power but can take it back at any time. Those who work in an environment governed by the principle of subsidiarity are called to a higher level of excellence and participation and are more likely to grow and accept their full responsibility than those assigned a task by delegation, for subsidiarity affirms the personal dignity of employees by recognizing that they have the call and capacity to give something of themselves to others. Delegation remains a tool for testing performance with increasing levels of risk and trust, so that an employee over time will progress over time from carrying out orders to independent problem solving.

The second task for orienting a culture toward subsidiarity is to define the boundaries of autonomy for the various parts of the organization. “This is a key leadership responsibility since it creates the right conditions for employees to understand their tasks, their degrees of freedom, and their interdependencies within the organization as a whole” (Respect in Action, 32). At IJM Canada, the members of the senior leadership team (those who reported directly to me) understood that they had autonomy in hiring decisions.  I asked to be kept informed, would comment on features of individuals they were considering that I found attractive and would formally sign off on the job offer, but otherwise kept my hands off the process. At the same time, there were moments when, as guardian of the culture of the organization, I took the opinions of the senior leadership team under advisement and gave clear direction on a watershed issue. Every employee needs to “understand that there are limits to the autonomy employees can be given in certain situations, and these limits are defined by the impact their decisions can have on others and the business as a whole” (Respect in Action, xvi).

The final task for leaders is to develop the people that they lead.  Subsidiarity presupposes, in Peter Drucker’s words, “that people are an organization’s most valuable resource and that a manager’s job is to prepare and free people to perform” (The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, xix). Good leaders create an organization that fosters the effective development of employees by equipping them with the tools, expertise, self-confidence and self-worth needed to carry out their tasks with excellence. An orientation toward subsidiarity sees training and development not as an avenue toward greater productivity and efficiency, but as an investment in the flourishing of image-bearers in their place of employment. In fact, a leader’s commitment to subsidiarity may be tested when the employee they have assisted through education, training, mentoring and counsel feels compelled to leave the organization to pursue co-creation with the Creator in another context.

The theological underpinnings of the principle of subsidiarity, rooted in the idea that each man and woman who joins himself or herself to an enterprise is an expression of imago Dei (and whose work, therefore, is an act of co-creation), challenges the leader to create an environment where human gifts can be more fully realized and where creativity and responsibility can be more concretely expressed. “For such a leader, the principle of subsidiarity is more than a way to design good work, or to make good products, or to offer good services.  It is a way to enlarge the possibilities for full human development at work, indeed, for people to become who they were created to be” (Respect in Action, 45). For followers of Christ, this understanding appropriately elevates management to a holy calling as we engage in the noble task of serving our sisters and brothers and building up the kingdom of God.

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