Synodality, authority and effective leadership

François Asselin is the head of a construction company in France that specialises in heritage restoration. He is also president of the Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (CPME), which claims 243,000 member companies that employ some four million people. Asselin is also a practicing Catholic and is interested in the synodal process that Pope Francis has launched in the Church. He spoke with La Croix’s Gilles Donada about some of the lessons his professional life has taught him about authority and effective leadership and how they can be applied in the Church.

Mar 04, 2022

La Croix:
As an employer, how do you interpret the words “discern”, “decision” and “authority”?

Françoi Asselin:
These three words are intended to generate action, commitment. Before acting, I need to discern well, that is, to take the necessary distance. In this area, the Church has good tools, such as spiritual guidance. In my profession, this means consulting those whose opinion can enlighten me, especially those who do not think like me. This otherness brings a light that can lead me to modify a decision I was planning to make. I need to step away from the world for a moment to turn to the transcendent. But this is not always possible.

You used the word “transcendence”. What do you mean?
I believe very much in the power of ritual, which structures the actions I take during the day. There is not a day that I don’t pray. In order to take a step back, I need this intimate dialogue with the Lord and his intercessors: The Virgin Mary and the saints. In the morning, I pray Lauds, and I read the Gospel and the life of the saint of the day. In the evening, after having said the Act of Contrition, I give thanks for what I have experienced during the day. Acknowledging that I am a sinner helps me remain humble and avoid the temptation of pride, which is especially prevalent among those who make decisions that will have an impact on people’s lives.

When did you first realise the importance of taking an opinion different from your own?
I think, for example, of the organisation of a construction site. In discussing with my team members, who were full of common sense, I realised that the implementation of the project could be improved, and that we would have saved time and avoided certain mistakes if I had listened to them beforehand. Making a decision necessarily involves my employees or those I represent at the CPME. I am confronted with the pressure of urgency, which demands quick answers while complex subjects do not require simple decisions. But, let’s be clear, the worst thing would be not to decide.

You mention the pressure of urgency. How does it manifest itself in your job?
Let’s take the example of COVID-19. The arrival of the pandemic suddenly affected our entire environment. We had to react quickly to prevent employees from losing their jobs, companies from going bankrupt and business owners, who are often self-employed, from having no income at the end of the month. Concerns were growing and everyone was waiting for an answer. A quick, clear and effective decision had to be taken.

How did you proceed?
I had to put two of my three life responsibilities on the back burner: my family life and my role as a company director. A task force was formed around the minister of the economy, Bruno Lemaire, with whom we had a daily meeting. Every day, we assessed the situation and developed the tools that would protect employees, companies and entrepreneurs. Through these collaborative efforts, long-term partial labour, state-guaranteed loans and the solidarity fund were set up. I insisted that estate management follow. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if they are not implemented effectively, anxiety, disarray and even anger increase...

How do you exercise authority?
It is important to specify that authority is linked to decision-making. It must be distinguished from authoritarianism, which is the illegitimate exercise of authority. True authority is based on competence, good example and humility. Suffice it to say that we rarely succeed in bringing together these three conditions, but that does not prevent us from striving for them.

What threatens authority?
For authority to be respected, it must be shared. Pride undermines authority. If I am competent and exemplary, but all my decisions are made from above, I eat away at my natural authority. Authority is humble when it manifests itself through respect for others, listening to them and recognising the work they do. We often know how to demand and rarely how to thank, myself included. Let’s take a military image, a captain sends his troops to attack. They show great pugnacity, but when they return, the officer does not praise them for their courage; the next time, it will be more complicated to send them into battle...

Is it only pride that undermines authority?
No, I’m thinking of the relationship with money. In itself, it is neither good nor bad, it all depends on how you earn it and how you use it. I am also thinking about the temptation of seduction. This is common in places of power. If you surround yourself with a small group that constantly flatters you, you lose touch with reality, you are tempted to function only in the mode of seduction.

Have you ever had to make difficult decisions?
Yes, for example, firing an employee. The morning of the meeting, which was going to be tense, I came across this quote from Christ: “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged; in the same way that you judge, you will be judged” (Mt 7, 1-2). I realised that I needed to step back from the resentment I was feeling as I was about to make a decision with far-reaching consequences. I realised that resentment was undoubtedly present in this employee, and that it could be even stronger than mine.

I saw another possible way out of this painful separation. I needed to look for balanced conditions for both sides, avoiding, as much as possible, personal injury. It is a real struggle to keep a coherence between what one thinks, what one believes and what one does.

The word “synod” means “walking together” and “crossing a threshold”. Is this dimension also present in the business world?
Of course. People are social animals. We are not made to walk alone. Today, we can be tempted to curl up into our own small selves, to turn our family into a cocoon. We are called to lead a fruitful life by moving forward with others. That’s how the world holds together. Of course, we each have our own qualities and defects, and our own personality. At the starting line, we are not all equal, we are different. But if we share the same goal, we can walk constructively, all together in the same direction. Walking means taking tangible actions to embody what we believe.

                         Consultation phase off to a slow start in Ireland

Although the Global Synod was launched in October 2021 and in many countries the consultation phase has already been completed, in Ireland the consultation phase is only now commencing.

A survey carried out by We Are Church Ireland, a lay Catholic lobby group, shows a very slow start to the synodal process in the country. Websites of the 26 Irish dioceses show six dioceses make no mention of the Synod, only four name their Synod contact person and just five have online response forms. Only seven of the diocesan websites get a pass mark, with Dublin and Armagh leading the way, said We Are Church Ireland.

Colm Holmes, the group’s Joint Coordinator, expanded on the survey findings. “I have no doubt that the Global Synod will take place as planned in October 2023. But Pope Francis’ plan that everyone should be involved will not happen,” said Holmes. “Seeking inputs from those at the margins and those who have walked away requires a major effort. Much easier for each diocese to contact the few who remain in the pews after COVID. A large majority have little or no time for a Synod which, after Phase One, is totally controlled by the bishops in all subsequent phases,” Holmes said.

We Are Church Ireland is supporting Phase One of the Synod, organising a Listening Session with the theme What changes are important for our Church? he said. Explaining possible reasons for the slow start of the Synod, Holmes pointed out that the bishops announced early in 2021 that they would hold an assembly or assemblies of the Church in Ireland within five years. “The Global Synod has now been integrated into the first two years of our National Synodal Pathway,” Holmes said. “Also, our bishops are quite conservative and they are no doubt waiting to see the outcomes in 2023 of both the German Synodal Path and the Global Synod,” he said.

According to Holmes, the two main issues facing the Catholic Church are shared decision making and equality for women. “We have seen with the German Synodal Path that laity and clerics can work together to tackle the important issues so long neglected by the Church of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is my hope that the Irish National Synodal Pathway will follow the German model rather than the Roman hierarchical model,” Holmes said. -- LCI (https://

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