As a member of the LDS faith, this week brought the sad news that our prophet, Thomas S. Monson, had passed away. As I’ve reflected on his life and legacy, I keep coming back to the unique example of leadership he offered both those in my faith and the world.
President Monson: The quintessential Hufflepuff
President Monson was the perfect example of a Hufflepuff. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the world of Harry Potter, Hufflepuff is one of the four houses at Hogwarts, a school for aspiring, young witches and wizards. According to the ceremony which sorts students into their respective houses, “You might belong in Hufflepuff where they are just and loyal. Those patient Hufflepuffs are true and unafraid of toil.” As an avid Harry Potter fan, my impression throughout the books has always been that Hufflepuffs are unfailingly kind and value people more than accolades. Doesn’t that sound exactly like President Monson?
In his obituary in the Deseret News, they highlight his commitment to “the one,” stating, “As a bishop, he befriended 84 widows who lived in his large ward, visiting them regularly and giving each one a gift at Christmastime. He remembered them long after he was released as their bishop and wound up speaking at every one of their funerals.” The Salt Lake Tribune’s obituary quotes his biographer, stating, “He [was] never too busy to pick up the phone to call a friend from high school who just lost her husband, never too busy to sit by the side of a friend as he passes on, never too busy to write a letter of encouragement to one of his friends.”
The case for Hufflepuff leaders
I should state for the record that I would never be categorized as a Hufflepuff, but I see in those who would be, important, often undervalued characteristics, especially in the ranks of leadership. Those who grace the political, religious, academic, and social halls of the world, among other traits, tend to be ambitious, competitive, and outwardly talented. None of these are negative characteristics on their own, but too often they can get in the way of what really matters.
Hufflepuffs have their priorities straight. Despite the fact that they are the most accepting of all four houses (they’ll take anyone, even if the other houses won’t), they’ve produced the fewest number of dark wizards. And J.K. Rowling shared on Pottermore that nearly all the Hufflepuff students stayed to fight during the final battle of the series against the big baddie Voldemort. She says, ‘They didn’t want to show off, they weren’t being reckless, that’s the essence of Hufflepuff.’ They have a deep commitment to morality and integrity, but it is practiced quietly and without fanfare. It is enough to know they’ve done the right thing, even without recognition. This lack of self-aggrandizement seems like an incredibly valuable character trait, so why do we have so few Hufflepuff leaders?
So much of attaining leadership responsibility depends on the recommendation of others: elections, office politics, and social capital all factor into success. You’re not going to be CEO if you don’t get the board on your side. You’re never going to be pope if you don’t convince the other cardinals, you’re not going to win an Oscar unless you campaign, etc. Despite the fact that Hufflepuffs are the most people-focused group of individuals, it’s easy to take them for granted in these situations because they don’t fit the typical mold of what we expect from our leaders.
I think the lack of Hufflepuff leaders says a lot more about us as a society and what we value, than it does about Hufflepuffs themselves. Susan Cain offers an interesting take on leader selection in her book Quiet: The Secret Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She says, “I worry that there are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas. It’s so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? They’re valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance.”
If we truly want our communities to be places of safety and trust, we would likely find more success if we sought out leaders who exemplified these very traits.
What President Monson taught us about Hufflepuff leaders
President Monson was credited with being a minister instead of an administrator. Heidi Swinton, his biographer, cites a quote from Mormon apostle Neil L. Andersen, “He doesn’t act as if he is an administrator who has to get through all of the issues, he acts more like a shepherd. That’s who he is, someone whose impact on people is more important than are his calculations or strategies for the church.” President Monson led an organization of 14.8 million people by focusing on individuals instead of institutions. How many organizational and societal difficulties could be alleviated if our leaders prioritized the time they spend in the trenches with those who are dealing with the greatest challenges?
Despite his individualized approach, he did recognize the power of global strategy and expanded the LDS Church’s mission to include “caring for the poor and needy.” By adjusting the Church’s mission, he elevated social programs, service, and humanitarian work within the LDS agenda, he put the institutional power behind such efforts, increasing involvement significantly. What impact could organizations have on overwhelming economic inequity if they were willing to change the mission of their organization to address these individuals?
President Monson embodied the inclusive approach of Helga Hufflepuff in how he interacted with other religious leaders. According to the Tribune, the Monday after he was sustained as prophet, he spoke of partnering with other religious faiths saying, that Mormons should “eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute for it the strength of people working together.” Rather than feeling a competitive edge with his fellow clergymen and women, he saw people with similar values that he could partner with. How many more problems would we solve if leaders were better at working together?
This ability to seek relationships with those who were in very different circumstances was highlighted again in his Deseret News obituary. For “21 years, until the [Berlin] wall fell in 1989, despite the close scrutiny and wariness of government officials, President Monson managed to regularly cross into [East Germany]. He forged friendships where it was felt friendships could not be forged, while strengthening church membership, preserving records, gaining approval for missionaries to enter the country and paving the way for a temple to be built in Freiberg.” The talent for reaching out with respect and authentic consideration is one we will likely need with increasing frequency as technology brings the world closer together despite sharp cultural and ideological differences.
It is especially in times of contrasting views that we need more Hufflepuffs in roles of leadership. McKay Coppins, in his Atlantic tribute to the prophet, made a similar observation: “In a country plagued by atomization—where ever more isolated people are growing ever more suspicious of their fellow citizens—Monson’s was, in its own way, a radically countercultural message. ‘Often we live side by side but do not communicate heart to heart,’ he said in 2009, imploring church members not to let ‘the busyness of our lives’ get in the way of Christian charity.'”
A note to aspiring leaders
If you, like me, are not a Hufflepuff, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for you in leadership. The very essence of Hogwarts was to emphasize the importance of different strengths and weaknesses in a community. We need Gryffindors, Ravenclaws, and yes, even Slytherins in addition to Hufflepuffs. Rather than replace all of the leadership positions in the world with Hufflepuffs, we should increase their ranks to a more proportional size and seek to emulate their admirable qualities.
You might encourage a talented friend who does not seek out the limelight to throw their hat in the ring for a coveted position. You might identify the Hufflepuffs on your team and make a special effort to recognize their contributions. Or you might take stock of Hufflepuff qualities that could help you solve an important challenge in your life and make a plan to develop that aspect of yourself.
History provides centuries of leaders to learn from, but few embody the depth of love and caring that President Thomas S. Monson did. As we lose his quiet example Hufflepuff leadership, may we seek out ways to preserve a little of it in our own lives, homes, companies, countries, and communities.