on a TIME magazine regular feature,
interviews with influential Dominicans appear occasionally
Donna Markham, OP
Markham, OP is the prioress of the Dominican
Sisters of Adrian, MI
and former President of The Southdown Institute, Ontario, Canada.
a treatment center that provides in-patient and out-patient care
for clergy. Donna is a licensed clinical psychologist. She
also served as special assistant to the president at Georgetown
University, where she was the director for leadership initiatives.
Donna, you have been in a leadership role for your congregation
and previously in leadership of Southdown, what do you see as some
essential characteristics of successful leadership?
Leadership is fundamentally about passion for the mission of
the group. Good leaders feel compelled to take action on
behalf of the mission and they are willing to take the risks inherent
in engaging in such initiatives—even though sometimes those
risks might end in perceived failure. A certain ability to think
beyond what has been and look toward what might be is
crucial for these times. Seeing the goodness in the membership
of the group and calling people to hope and to a deep belief in
what can be accomplished together are qualities that lurk in the
hearts of excellent leaders!
Much has been made of the distinction between managing
and leading, how does a good leader stay out of the manager trap?
Staying focused on the vision of the group—that is, on the
members’ articulation of its communal “best self” in
response to the crying needs of the times—inoculates the
leader against micromanagement. Additionally, knowing one’s
own limitations and inviting the most talented folks one can find
to join in implementing various tasks-at-hand comprise the frame
for a wonderful and complementary relationship between leadership
and those who have the unique skills of managing. Leaders
who cannot delegate will find themselves exhausted and dispirited
long before their tenure is completed.
Is there a distinctively Dominican way of leading? (What
in our tradition speaks to good leadership?)
Our tradition of participative governance and our long-held belief
that true authority resides in the communion of the members position
Dominicans well in this historic period. We have known since
our mediaeval foundations that authoritarian models of leadership
are generally not effective. Dominic envisioned a different way. While
we may not be consciously aware of how these ancient values resulted
in a leadership style that differs from many other religious Orders,
my rather biased sense is that it has resulted in healthier and
more mature group functioning in the service of our preaching mission.
Do you believe that we can develop leadership
among new members?
There has been considerable research done pertaining to the issue
of leadership development. Can leaders be taught or are they
born? Many substantive studies indicate that leadership skills can
be taught and, thus, once having acquired those skills a person
can function as an adequate leader. The qualities
that make someone an outstanding leader, however, are
far more elusive and likely not simply able to be learned or acquired. Every
new Dominican should have opportunities to learn the skills needed
to be a good leader. The needs of the mission are so great
that all of us, young and old, must be able to take lead roles
in coalescing others in response to such urgencies.
would make that happen?
significant projects to newer Dominicans and establishing adult
mentoring relationships so that the next generation of us will
succeed become important tasks for those of us who have had such
opportunities. Some new Dominicans will undoubtedly demonstrate
special talents that will mark them as outstanding leaders. It
is readily apparent to me that not everyone is given the gift of
outstanding leadership. No one of us is entitled to
be a leader. It is a gift, and a mysterious one at that! But
each of us has leadership ability that needs to be called forth,
freed and exercised in service to the Gospel. Discovering
the best place to direct that ability happens in the context of
true communal discernment.
Does a strong commitment to collaboration water down
Quite to the contrary. When collaboration is understood
as garnering the best thinking of the group in its response to
achieving its mission, groups are far more likely to achieve more
creative outcomes and make bolder decisions than any individual
would on his or her own. Smart leaders are not threatened
by enlarging the circle of wisdom. It is all about responding
to the mission—not about an individual’s conscious
or unconscious need to control. Collaboration fails when
leaders are insecure, threatened or unimaginative.
Can you share a moment or situation in which you wish
you could have done something different? That is, if you
had to do it over again you would?
Any time I have reneged on making a difficult decision because
of fear that I will not be liked, I have regretted it. One
thing I have learned is that, with good counsel and considerable
prayer, making a decision that serves the common good is more important
than feeling affirmed by everyone.
How do you view the current trends toward reconfiguration in
US Dominican congregations?
These efforts are mission-driven. To that end, they enable
smaller groups to join their efforts toward more effective service
to God’s people and to the terribly vulnerable national and
ecclesial situations in which we are situated. In my mind,
this is a first step toward what hopefully will yield to intercontinental
affiliations of one type or another. Joining together on
the North American continent is likely preliminary to thinking
beyond our national similarities toward international and intercontinental
congregations. In this time of global crisis, we Dominicans hold
the possibility of crossing the oceans to join across our national
differences in response to enormous justice issues. We have the
potential to witness to connecting with others from different national
and cultural realities and directing such synergistic energy toward
global healing and reconciliation. Countries have not been
particularly successful at this, but I believe we Dominicans just
What books are on your nightstand?
Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman; Thirst: Poems by
Mary Oliver; What is the What? by Dave Eggers; The
Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality by
If you could have every Dominican in the US read
a particular book what would it be and why?
I would have to say Albert Nolan’s Jesus Today: A Spirituality
of Radical Freedom. I found this to be a book that
was not only helpful and inspirational, but provided a means
to read the life of Jesus in the Gospels in a way that connected
with our contemporary insights from the new sciences. I
have read a number of works pertaining to the universe story,
spirituality and our tradition and must say this has been the
. If you could sit down to dinner with anyone from history (alive
or dead) who would it be and why?
I would love to meet Nelson Mandela. As a believer and as
a psychologist, I would like to ask him how he was able to maintain
hope through his imprisonment and how he was able to envision a
world where freedom and forgiveness could outweigh enslavement
and vindictiveness. He embodies qualities that I think all
of us need in these times.
Thanks so much Donna.
Donna: My plesaure!
Anne Lythgoe, OP