Arnold Janssen as a Great Leader

Author: Andrzej Miotk, SVD
Subject: Leadership Traits
Language: English, Spanish
Publisher: Arnoldus Nota, September 2017
Year: 2017
Arnold Janssen, the Founder

Fr. Arnold Janssen permitted God’s providence to work in him by responding wholeheartedly to God’s call and becoming truly a man of God. Fr. Arnold, initially perceived as a very pious man but devoid of necessary capacities, impractical and lacking wisdom, tact, and discernment to start such a foundation, grew and transformed gradually into a leader who accomplished extraordinary things for God and the Church. As a leader, he not only did things right but did the right things in extremely turbulent times- “when everything seems to be shaking and sinking” -so that the Triune God could live in the hearts of all people. His leadership over his foundations reflects the five characteristics of a real leader: Vision, Management, Team building, Encouragement, and Risk-Taking.

1. Vision. Fr. Arnold carried in his work and foundations a future oriented vision which he promoted through the press and retreats. He pursued his grand vision of mission with all determination, as long as he had the conviction that God wanted it. Fr. Arnold was by nature prudent and reflective, endowed with mathematical mind. He learned to plan the priorities strategically and knew how to carry out the vision through achievable steps. His missionary realism is visible in decision-making, e.g., accepting new missions like the ministry among European migrants in Latin America. His wisdom prompted him to be extremely cautious in taking over a new mission and selecting good leaders at the very start. He sought much information, studied books and maps about geography, climate, culture, languages of the territory as well as assessing the circumstances carefully to make the final decision with “inner calm”. He consulted the expertise and advice of others, taking time and praying to the Holy Spirit, “The good grows slowly. The Lord does not ask us more than we can do. But we must avoid an excessive zeal because in it there is much more personal spirit than that of God. God does not ask for anything impossible but proceeds in harmony with all the circumstances.” His all-encompassing vision sprang from his harmonious balance between the active and contemplative life and was concretized in the constant search of the will of God and its fulfillment. This became the only guiding reason for his life and mission.

2. Management. Fr. Arnold was also a leader who knew how to organize the people and the available resources for mission. The beginnings of his foundations were challenging. There was nothing to start with, no rule, no tradition, no adequate basis to proceed with confidence. His utmost priority was the proper management of human resources. Therefore, the formation of future missionaries was the apple of his eye. He educated them in the spirit of sacrifice and stressed the solid formation of mind in compliance with the requirements of mission work. In the selection of candidates to the Society, he was highly prudent and believed in testing their motives. The Founder demanded an entirely religious spirit, fidelity to vocation, the will to work and great love for prayer. He proceeded strategically trying to discover at an early stage confreres who could be destined for critical positions and assigned them first to ministries to test their capabilities. He supervised their training so that they would be capable of administering their future tasks: “Often obstacles and difficulties will serve to bring some confreres into positions that are instructive, and that will prepare them for the future”.

3. Team building. Fr. Arnold was a team leader selflessly searching for the common interest yet unrecognized and caring little for personal prestige. He fled away from all honors and forbade confreres to praise him in their official speeches. The Founder’s spirit captured his own words to a confrere in Chile (1904), “Worthwhile indeed is the life of one who gives his all.” Consequently, Fr. Arnold understood the mission as an act of love, of self-giving, which strongly opposes our dominant and secular culture of comfortable self-fulfillment, lack of sacrifice and suffering. Like all good leaders,
he continuously worked to build up his strengths and improve on his weaknesses. The Founder displayed extraordinary trust in God and impressive self-control so that he could get very energetic, but never angry. In the meetings with the superiors of the religious congregations, he impressed his counterparts with his prudence and serenity. When the others got excited, he remained calm. What he believed in he accomplished with great energy and constancy, but without excitement. He learned to look in the mirror and saw his limitations. Already in the minor seminary in Gaesdonck, he had to repeat a year; then as a Superior General, he received grave accusation presented by Fr. Wilhelm Gier in 1901. The fifty-six-page accusation made him think of resignation. Eventually Fr. Arnold concluded that true humility doesn’t demand that we go against the truth. His humility paired with prudence and strict sense of justice towards everyone, regardless of his status. In his over 8000 letters, he was straightforward and direct. In his words and deeds, he practiced simplicity, modesty, sincerity and was a declared enemy of excessiveness, ostentatious appearance, and over reactions. In his view, the duty of the superior is to maintain peace in the community, to level the conflicts, to recall the established order and to take a care of the sick confreres. He enjoyed a lot the family spirit which animated his religious communities. He respected the hierarchical proceedings but also he was firm to defend the rights of the Society against the unjust interferences of the higher authorities of the Church.

4. Encouragement. Our Founder was a motivational leader, enabling and empowering others to act. Behind his necessary formality, there was a sense of warmth, sincerity, humility, and genuine care for his confreres. As evident, Fr. Arnold’s biographer portrayed earlier the image of a stern, inflexible, demanding superior. But from the Founder’s letters emerged a compassionate and respectful superior who always acted considering all the sides concerned and their contrary opinions. He won the hearts of many by his tireless patience, gracious goodness, kindness and coherence. He had to work on improving himself heroically. This was evidenced by Fr. Völlmecke as he observed the last years of the Founder’s life. Fr. Arnold became so calm, amiable and balanced. He repeated that he did not want to be too rigorous because with love and gentleness one gets more than by being rigorous. He developed into a leader with the authority of the Father and with a Heart of the Mother. This was stated by Fr. Peter Schmitz. Accordingly, the Founder was firstly more respected than loved. His physical appearance of being skinny and short (164 cm.), equipped with soft voice and modest oratory skills were endowments that were not in his favor. His temperament was choleric and severe. Fr. Reginaldus Geyer saw in him a true hard-headed Westphalian. Fr. Arnold – tireless in his activity – addressed one of the missionaries with the words: “always pray, always work, never get tired,” and this constituted his life program.

5. Risk-Taking. Arnold Janssen took up challenges and risks at the proper time, recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities. He once said, “We live in a time when much is collapsing, and new things must be established in their place.” Despite tough beginnings in Steyl (1875-78), Fr. Arnold said to the skeptics: “You must avoid rejecting a goal just because it is momentarily unattainable.” Arnold possessed the fundamental feature of a leader, that is, the capability to make decisions, sometimes complicated ones. He used to say that one can never say that an obstacle is unsurpassable until he hasn’t done all he could do to overcome it. He noted, “The more work is holy, the greater are generally the difficulties to encounter.” Fr. Arnold took them on with unlimited trust in God. He knew how to wait for the right time, despite the “delays,” often incomprehensible in the context of human logic. He heroically dismissed his two closest collaborators Peter Bill and Franz Xaver Reichart to affirm his commitment to the service of truth.

Our Society needs leaders who are men of God and with a vision embodied in their lives, able to both communicate and to put it into practice. Leaders like our Founder are apt to encourage and to motivate others to act with humility and with a strong sense of community. Especially as leaders like our Founder, they ought to know how to take advantage of all the material and human resources available for the Society to carry out its mission and commitment.

By Fr. Andrzej Miotk, SVD
SVD Historian

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