For anyone who knows me well, it will be no surprise that I found myself wondering about the history of St. Patrick’s day as I ate my corned beef last night. I’m quite the history geek, and at least 1/8 Irish thanks to my Paternal Great Grandmother Sullivan! I’m also a leadership researcher, though, so found myself wondering what leadership qualities enabled St. Patrick to essentially convert a whole country to Christianity – that’s what he really did by the way! The snakes legend may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but what he really did is no less astounding!
Now, through my quick internet search – I admit, not my most in depth research – I found some clues as to St. Patrick’s leadership strengths – the Celtic cross. You’ve seen it. It’s much like a Christian cross, but it’s a cross with a circle sun superimposed. Story goes, that St. Patrick was actually born in Scotland or England to Roman parents, but was captured and enslaved by Irish pirates at a young age. While he was enslaved, his faith grew and he once dreamed of the Irish people reaching out to him, and believed that it was a sign from God that he should one day convert the Irish people from Druidism to Christianity. After escaping and then returning to Ireland, that’s exactly what he did. The key, though, is that during his time of captivity, he got to know and understood the Irish people. He used this empathy and understanding to tailor his teachings about Christianity to their needs. Some legends say that the very popular Celtic cross was used by St. Patrick to present a version of the Christian cross that the Irish would more easily accept – an empathetic combination of Druid beliefs with the most important symbol of Christianity. It is also said that he incorporated Bon fires in the celebrations of Easter, because Bon fires were a common component of Druid religious celebrations.
I am no historian, but after reading several accounts of the story of St. Patrick, this seems to capture the common elements of the story. Regardless of truth or legend, the fact that St. Patrick influenced the religious beliefs of Ireland appears to be undisputed, as is the fact that he deeply understood the people of Ireland due to his time spent there in captivity. Thus, one of St. Patrick’s leadership qualities was undoubtedly empathy and respect, which allowed him incredible power to influence the people of Ireland.
Empathy is a core component of most leadership models. It may be called something else, like Interpersonal Skills or Consideration and Understanding, but the recognition of caring for and understanding followers is recognized as essential to leadership in the literature. However, in common conceptions, it is often left out. People often think of leaders as people who are “good decision makers,” “confident,” “courageous,” and “tough.” While these are all important, one can’t forget that understanding, appreciating, and respecting where our “followers” are coming from is absolutely essential to true influence.