"Integral Human Development through a Leadership of Care" by Sister Raffaella Petrini

Novembr 1, 2023

“A leadership of care”: Sister Raffaella Petrini on a managerial model grounded in Catholic social teaching

By: Morgan Munsen

The Nanovic Institute for European Studies was honored to welcome Sister Raffaella Petrini, F.S.E., the secretary general of the Vatican City State, to present the Keeley Vatican Lecture on Wednesday, November 1, 2023. Sr. Petrini delivered a deeply humane lecture on leadership that drew upon her own professional experience as secretary general, her academic interests in organizational behavior and Catholic social teaching (CST), and her Franciscan charism.

In his welcome remarks, Clemens Sedmak, director of the Nanovic Institute and professor of social ethics at the Keough School of Global Affairs, highlighted Sr. Petrini’s focus on integral human development (IHD). This cross-disciplinary approach to human dignity is at the heart of the mission of the Keough School and is a defining feature of the work of the Nanovic Institute. Reverend Austin Collins, C.S.C., vice president for mission engagement and church affairs at Notre Dame, further underscored Sr. Petrini’s commitment to IHD in his introduction as he named her a “wise servant leader who seeks the care of the whole person while pursuing excellence in service.”

Catholic social teaching and the evolution of the “social question”

Sister Petrini delivering the Keeley Vatican Lecture at Notre Dame.
Sister Petrini delivering the Keeley Vatican Lecture at Notre Dame (Photo by Katie Whitcomb / University of Notre Dame).

Sr. Petrini began her lecture by exploring the area of Catholic doctrine that provides the guiding principles for her philosophy of leadership: Catholic social teaching. Grounded in the wisdom of papal encyclicals, she gave it the following characterization: “Through Catholic social teaching, the Church presents her response to the ethical questions raised over time by human societies and interprets the moral values of social activities, including human leadership, and offers guiding principles, not technical solutions, consistent with the evangelical vision of human life.”

While there is an enduring continuity to the basic principles of CST, Sr. Petrini argued that it is also variably applied to the changing needs and conditions of human societies over time. This is illustrated by the evolution of the “social question” at the heart of CST under the effects of the cultural, political, social, and economic transformations of the 19th-21st centuries. The four phases of this evolution, as presented by Petrini, include the labor question (1891-1931), which was exemplified by class conflict between owners and workers – or, put another way, between the ideologies of liberalism and socialism; the democratic question (1931-1958), which was marked by the conflict between the socio-economic systems of capitalism and communism; the planetary question (1958-1978), which saw spreading inequalities and increasing developmental gaps between the Global North and South; and the anthropological question (1978-present), which concerns the vision of the human being and the ways that human life is shaped, positively and negatively, by technology.

Integral human development and the value of work

“the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is [...] the human person in his or her integrity because the human person is the source, the focus, and the aim of all economic and social life.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate

Expanding on the problems of our current age, Sr. Petrini described how recent technological developments have led humans to adopt attitudes of extraction and manipulation (towards objects but also people), in addition to a sense of limitless control. These attitudes contrast with a Catholic understanding of human development which, according to Pope Paul VI, “in order to be complete and authentic, … must foster the development of each [hu]man and of the whole [hu]man.” Thus, an understanding of integral human development does not just concern the quantitative dimension of growth, but also the socio-emotional and spiritual dimensions that are qualitative in nature. Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI asserted in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate that “the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is [...] the human person in his or her integrity because the human person is the source, the focus, and the aim of all economic and social life.” Thus, Sr. Petrini argued that the success of any organizational system cannot merely be evaluated in terms of quantitative factors like productivity or growth, but above all by virtue of its qualitative development – particularly the improvement in quality of life of the people who render the system operative.

 Inspired by Pope Francis’ teachings in Laudato Si', Sr. Petrini then went on to characterize human work as “an integral part of the meaning of human life on Earth as it offers human beings a viable path to growth, human development, and personal fulfillment.” This vision of human work, inspired by CST, would suggest a paradigm shift in organizational management from one primarily oriented toward efficiency and profit to a human-centered one. In response, Sr. Petrini offers her own human-centered model, a leadership of care:

“While focusing on the integral development of the members of their organization, leaders should pursue effective outcomes through a human-centered management that focuses on the needs of the person and nurtures relations rooted in mutuality and collaboration, where the private and the professional spheres are no longer rigidly separated.”

In opposition to the strictly enforced separation of personal and professional life in many corporate cultures, Sr. Petrini’s managerial model requires leaders to know their subordinates on a human level – their families, burdens, and areas of fragility. This relationship of trust has great motivational importance, promoting creativity and enthusiasm in the collaborators far beyond monetary incentives. A renewed emphasis on soft skills (such as empathy) is necessary to bring about this paradigm shift to servant leadership. Above all, says Sr. Petrini, these leaders must be “experts in humanity”: listening to and accompanying others through their struggles while also truly seeing the value of their work and being attentive to people’s need for recognition.

Leaders as “experts in humanity”

The Keeley Vatican Lecture on November 1, 2023 (Photo by Katie Whitcomb / University of Notre Dame).
The Keeley Vatican Lecture on November 1, 2023 (Photo by Katie Whitcomb / University of Notre Dame).

The path to such structural change begins at the personal level, and Sr. Petrini argued that leaders must assume concrete responsibility for the common good in order to combat the virus of individualism and self-centeredness that afflicts the modern socio-economic system. Consistent with these values, Sr. Petrini humbly counted herself among those leaders who must fight against the natural tendency towards selfish and self-referential behavior in leadership.

Providing a foothold for the audience into her concrete reality, Sr. Petrini then shared the organizational chart for the Vatican City State – showing that even the smallest state in the world is highly complex. This sort of complexity requires a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving, where leaders bring many different people together to share their visions and work collaboratively towards solutions. To Sr. Petrini, an important example of this is the promotion of professional equality between women and men and the placement of more women in positions of authority – a stance she is quick to emphasize is affirmed by Pope Francis. This focus on gender parity is not meant to promote competitiveness but to add to the decision-making process through women’s innate qualities of care.

Sr. Petrini concluded her lecture by bringing the audience back to the “social question” of our modern age, and re-emphasized how leadership styles inspired by CST must address the two primary concerns of the integrity of the human person and the improvement of their quality of life. Building on Pope Francis’ address to the European Parliament in 2014, she outlines four guiding principles for her leadership of care model, asserting that leaders must:

  1. tend to the fragility of peoples;

  2. acknowledge the centrality of the human person;

  3. nurture the gifts of the other; and

  4. invest in those settings – like the workplace – where people’s talents are shaped and can truly flourish.

It is in these efforts of choosing solidarity over competitiveness that leaders can address the current social ills of extractive and manipulative management and, instead, affirm the words of John Paul II that it is “always the human person who is the purpose of work.”

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