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Why Pope Francis is a Rock-Star Leader

Why Pope Francis is a Rock-Star Leader

I will start with a disclaimer. I am not a Catholic and the chances of my conversion are extremely remote. I disagree with a fair number of the Pope’s core beliefs and with many teachings of the church he represents. I grew up in the rural South in a Protestant family, but today my orientation is more secular than religious.

However, as I have watched Pope Francis since his installation and particularly during his visit to the U.S., I am very impressed with his ability to connect with people and with the influence he exerts.

I have little doubt that in the next few years many babies will carry the name of Francis, and the number of tiny black Fiats on the road is destined to rise.

At a much more significant level, his short time with John Boehner last week surely influenced one of the most powerful men in the world (second in line to the Presidency) to hasten his decision to resign. Boehner had planned to wait until the end of the year, but the morning after his meaningful discussion with the Pope, he said, “Today is the day to do this.”

Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” remark about gays and lesbians seemed to shake a world that previously only condemned homosexuals. This brief comment signaled compassion and basic acceptance.

The pontiff’s focus on income inequality also calls for compassion.

Not only does he preach the evils of income inequality, he demonstrates a remarkable simplicity in his personal life. He lives in a suite in the Vatican guesthouse rather than in the papal palace. He does not wear ornate papal jewelry or elaborate clothing. And, as suggested previously, his choice of vehicles stands in sharp contrast to the enormous Secret Service SUVs that guarded him during his U.S. visit.

In his processions, entrances and exits, he invariably stopped to bless children and people with disabilities. He calls attention to people who are most often in the shadows.

More than in his personal life, his comments to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations draw attention to the enormous gap between rich and poor. Focusing on the Golden Rule, Pope Francis called for efforts to use wealth for the common good rather than simply as a symbol of success and power.

His climate change position aligns with his focus on income inequality as he asserts that the poorest of countries will suffer the most. His encyclical on climate change after his Climate Change Conference appears to have shifted the discussion from a “debate” about the subject to the acceptance that it is real and that man has contributed to it. The question now is what to do about it.

As I look at the millions of people who struggled to get a glimpse of this popular pope in person and the hours devoted to coverage of his visit in the media, I see a man who has made a real connection with people around the world.

This connection stems not only from the position he holds: it stems from a connection with the person who holds the position.

This is leadership in action—the ability to make emotional connections that influence other people to act in ways large and small.

Pope Francis does not make international policy and he cannot change the laws in the U. S. or other countries. His influence is very different.

He has the vantage point of the world stage. However, his words speak to everyday individuals who can ultimately empower the already powerful to make different decisions than they are currently making.

He alone will not change opinions and circumstances, but his comments and his behavior have the potential in concert with others to make a profound difference.

What is it about this pope that sparks this level of emotional connection and the ability to influence so many people?

These are the traits I see:

  • Humility —Above all, his humility attracts people. Pope Francis’ humility is shown by the acts of simplicity mentioned above and in his physical presence. Rather than a powerful pose with head fully erect and shoulders pulled far back, his head is typically bowed a bit and his shoulders are relaxed and pulled slightly forward. He looks up at others rather than lifting his face and looking down. It is not surprising that his humility enhances his ability to lead and connect.  Based on Jim Collins’ research in Good to Great, one of the most important traits of a leader is humility. That, paired with “unwavering resolve” is the foundation of highly effective leaders and great organizations. Pope Francis unmistakably embodies those traits.
  • Focus—When Pope Francis speaks to anyone, his eyes are locked onto them. His body is fully turned in their direction. He appears to fully connect with the other person. Other than when he must have been exhausted with jetlag and far too many hands to shake, his smile was wide and genuine: his eyes were part of his smile.
  • Courage—He has shown the willingness to make difficult or unpopular decisions as indicated by his comment about gays and lesbians. In 2014, he fired 300 priests for persistently refusing to greet parishioners in the approved manner at the beginning of mass. He fired four of the five cardinals who ran the Vatican bank after reports of money laundering and other suspicious financial activity.  He may come across as simply nice, but he has critics, and many of them are critical because he has taken strong action.
  • Finesse—Pope Francis has skillfully dealt with some very troubling issues. In his meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse and then in the Conference of Bishops, Pope Francis forcefully promised to hold accountable those responsible for abuse and those who cover it up. In his speech to the U.S. Congress, a very tough audience, he gently urged lawmakers to embrace immigrants and to work together for the greater good. In her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, Sylvia Hewlett refers to this trait as “grace under fire”— the ability to remain calm and function at a high level under difficult circumstances. In her study, corporate executives said this trait stood out for highly effective leaders.
  • Incitement—This term usually refers to negative actions, but its original meaning was to urge forward or to stir action.  It can also mean to arouse sympathy or compassion. This is exactly what Pope Francis is doing. He is calling on people to be part of something greater than themselves. Great leaders are catalysts for change and improvement. According to research from Goffee and Jones, people want to be part of something bigger than themselves.  The Pope is calling for altruism and action that makes the world a better place. He is asking people to take action for the greater good.

This Pope has admirably demonstrated many desirable leadership qualities. The test of his leadership will be the degree to which he builds sustainability and how much his exhortations contribute to a better future.

In our own leadership, how do we measure up? Do we demonstrate these same traits?

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Image: / Korean Culture and Information Service, Creative Commons: Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license