'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
- The Gospel of Matthew
'If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.'
- 1 John 3: 17-18
The Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco decided to install sprinklers timed to soak and therefore deter homeless people from sleeping in the entranceways to its Cathedral.
The Archdiocese apologised in an unsigned media release.
It explained that the sprinklers were the solution to the 'problem' of 'needles, faces and other dangerous items' that were left in the 'hidden doorways' to the Cathedral.
The idea came from the use of sprinklers in 'the Financial District' as a 'safety, security and cleanliness' measure.
The dangerous items left in the hidden doorways were a risk to 'students and elderly people' who regularly passed the locations 'on their way to school and mass every day.'
We've all attended the equivalent kind of The Meeting where it was decided to install the sprinklers. We know it goes something like this:
Chairperson: 'Let the Minutes show that the Archdiocese Interfaith Council recorded yet another successful year of helping many thousands of people through food, housing, shelter programs for people at risk including homeless mothers and families, and in countless other ways. Well done and God bless to all concerned. Now moving on to Item 19 on the Agenda: 'Dangerous Items Left in Cathedral Hidden Doorways'. We've read Bob's excellent Facilities Management Report on the problem. Bob?'
Bob: 'Thank you Archbishop. My staff spend hours each week cleaning up shi... sorry Archbishop - human excrement - needles, and refuse from the hidden doorways around the Cathedral. It's time consuming. It distracts them from tending to the gardens. There's risk a needle stick injury.'
Harry: 'We have duty of care.'
Bob: 'Yes! Duty of care.'
Frank: 'To them and the children and the elderly coming to mass.'
Joe: 'We had this problem when I was with the bank. We installed sprinklers that were on timers to spray the areas where people gathered. It worked. And quite cheap too. I know someone who did the job. I can get a quote. They're Catholic so they'll do us a good price.'
Someone needed to apply the Widget Thinking brakes.
What's our Widget, Archbishop? Eternal Life? And how do we make that again? Parable of the Good Samaritan any help? Didn't Jesus say something about if we love our neighbour we will find Eternal Life? Isn't that also the origin of our secular 'duty of care'?
The interrupter (I think they're called a Leader) needs the courage to persevere beyond the inward and outward eye-rolls around the table, and Frank's response that will begin with an irritated 'That's all very well, but...' and end with all eyes glaring at her.
It's the right versus right decisions that are the tough ones. Choosing between the well being of the homeless and the safety of children and the elderly. Choosing between People Are Our Most Important Asset and cashflow says we need to make some of them redundant. Choosing between openness and transparency (I think that used to be called 'honesty') and the risk both brings to The Brand.
St Benedict, whose writings influenced European governance, said to begin all work with a prayer. Remind ourselves of what we're here to do. What's our Widget? Thanks for that idea Joe - and while we appreciate your wisdom with our budget, a bank's Widget is different to the Church's Widget.
All organisations are guilty of what the decision makers in the Archdiocese of San Francisco did.
All organisations engage in Decision Laundering.
They exploit the distraction of a 'secondary' problem with a soft and attractive outer moral layer - the risk to children and the elderly mass goers - to harness the analytical skills of good workers away from the 'primary' hard core failure of difficult decision making - the plight of the homeless and drug addicted. The diligent workers fix the secondary 'problem' and feel good about themselves and the organisation. The knotty primary problem remains.
Another more common version of Decision Laundering is to engage workers' intellect and eagerness to problem solve for their boss - in fixing the fallout from the boss's bad primary decision. 'Hey Larry - we need your expertise to wordsmith a media release that puts this sprinkler business into context by honouring all the hard work that our volunteers do in our homeless shelters. We don't want to jeopardise the donations we need to keep them operating.'
The bad primary decision is laundered into a good one by the workers employing Good Decision Making in the secondary decision. The workers will loyally (and rightly) defend their secondary decision making and thus the organisation - allowing their bosses and their flawed primary decision to desert under the cover of the smokescreen of the secondary decision's integrity. Imagine Larry on the phone to the San Francisco Chronicle: 'We'd like to invite you to do an exclusive story to raise awareness of the plight of women in our refuge and the grave consequences for them if we don't make our fundraising target this year.' Good work, Larry. What sprinklers?
Good workers' decision making can be like the water efficiently and effectively cascading down the sides of St Mary's Cathedral like clockwork - cleansing it of the risk to health and safety - and with it, the evidence of the unfulfilled Widget - the path to Eternal Life.
The prime job of a leader is to remind the organisation to become more like the thing it says it wants to be. To say to the Archbishop - we need to put the poor ahead of mass attendance. To say to the CEO - our brand will survive our apology. To say to the boss - I disagree and here's why. Then to stick around to help deal with the aftermath of that dissent. This is very, very hard. Which is why real Leaders are rare.
It took two years after their installation and an investigative journalist's exposure for the Archdiocese to acknowledge its decision. It will be redeemed if what it learned advances the faithful towards Eternal Life. Meanwhile, the homeless people just used umbrellas and raincoats.
God must despair. His followers fouling the entrance to His Kingdom. Filthy with our hypocrisy and egos.
He may yet deploy sprinklers.