Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads

"Let us never forget that authentic power is service."

- Pope Francis, page 43

This is the essence of leadership for Father Bergoglio, the Jesuit priest who became Pope Francis. This leader of the Catholic Church enjoys an approval rating of 87%, a rating that would be envied by most world leaders and CEOs. In Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads, Chris Lowney has written a book, “a case study, a prism, the catalyst for us to ponder why we are so disappointed with the leadership status quo, to imagine an approach to leadership that would better inspire us, and to articulate the commitments we can make to become better leaders in our own lives.”

In the opening chapters, Lowney describes the life of a Jesuit priest and discusses the training and experiences Pope Francis undertook. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, wanted priests to be humble as Jesus was humble, but he also believed that ambition and political infighting could destroy an organization. Consequently, priests were not encouraged to seek status or power and were obligated to report those who demonstrated “excessive ambition.”

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Leaders know themselves and their purpose

"Commit to know yourself deeply, including your frailties, and come to some peaceful acceptance of yourself and your calling to lead. Then, commit to ‘get over yourself’ to serve a purpose greater than the self…"
- Pope Francis, page 67

The Catholic Church is facing many challenges: dwindling church attendance, a shortage of priests, sex abuse scandals, loss of moral authority, and relevance. I believe one of the main reasons why Pope Francis is so highly regarded by people of all faiths is because he is authentic. He knows who he is and he has a vision of and for the Catholic Church. He has not said anything contrary to traditional church doctrine but his words have been inclusionary and reflect hope and direction for the future of the church.

Have you ever worked in a place where there was no vision? It’s just a job. Half of the employees are checked out, and the other half are searching for new positions. A leader with a vision can reengage these employees and halt the exodus. The leader can create hope that things can change, that things WILL change. A good workplace will link vision to purpose through the organization’s products or community service.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Develop a personal philosophy

"What do you believe about yourself and your place in the world?"
- Pope Francis, page 33

Lowney writes that Pope Francis wrote a personal credo of less than 200 words shortly before he was ordained. These statements reflect his core beliefs and convictions. As leaders, we should take this time to reflect on who we are and what we are called to do. This personal credo serves as a private compass or GPS for navigating the leadership journey. As Pope Francis said, “‘We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things,’ but if our leadership does not rest on a foundation of solid convictions, we waste the chance.”

How many of us take the time to reflect on the gifts and experiences we acquire and how they can best be used in the world? One of the things frequently mentioned in this book was the use of spiritual exercises, or examen, an investigation of the conscience, performed twice a day, generally at noon and the end of the day. Traditionally, the examen is composed of five steps:

1. Become aware of God’s presence
2. Review the day with gratitude
3. Pay attention to your emotions
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it
5. Look toward tomorrow

Lowney explains that the examen helps leaders commit to stay on track and to “stay faithful to the journey.” This walk becomes a way of managing the days of darkness and failure.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

We are all leaders

"‘Leadership’ no longer brings to mind the one person in charge but a set of behaviors needed from every person."
- Pope Francis, page 23

Pope Francis’s leadership principles appear contradictory. For instance:

Know yourself deeply but live to serve others.

  • You can’t lead others if you can’t lead yourself. Spend time crafting your personal credo, know your strengths and weaknesses, and develop self-acceptance.
  • Leaders transcend themselves to serve others—they find a purpose beyond themselves.

Immerse yourself in the world but withdraw from the world daily.

  • Leaders are aware of the joys and sorrows of living and share with others.
  • Leaders take time to reflect, express gratitude, and remain grounded.

Live in the present and revere tradition, but create the future.

  • Leaders are principled and honor the tenets of the traditions they have inherited. They recognize that the only moment they truly have is right now.
  • Leaders respect the past but are not enslaved to it. Leaders look to the future with hope and optimism.

When Pope Francis was working in Argentina, he recognized that in order to solve problems, leaders must become involved in the problems of their people in order to find solutions. Lowney explains that Catholic parishes typically take a passive approach to marketing, so Pope Francis’s command to the priests was direct—and radical. “Well, you’re not going to find the answer sitting behind that desk,” he said. Father Gauffin recalls the commands:

  • Get into the neighborhood and walk it.
  • Don’t cherry pick.
  • Meet all of them. Get the smell of the sheep on you.
  • Visit the poor and take care of the needs.

The “smell of the sheep” is a powerful image Pope Francis has used repeatedly. A metaphor for lost and hurting humans, sheep are frequently mentioned in the Bible, whether as a directive to Peter to “feed my sheep,” recognition that we all have “gone astray like sheep,” or if we know our leader: “and the sheep listen to his voice…and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  We sheep are a fearful flock requiring much direction and encouragement. Pope Francis warns, “A Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms.” Good leaders will spend time with their people, understand their needs, and take care of them so the mission—the overall purpose greater than oneself—is achieved.

No one knows if Pope Francis will be able to bring about the radical change needed to “arrive precisely at the destination where we must arrive.”  As Pope Francis said, “Have you understood? You won’t be afraid of the journey? Thank you.”

Leadership is messy and hands-on, requiring professionals who know themselves, who can communicate vision and purpose, and who care about their workers. Leaders know they won’t find the answers sitting behind desks.

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Mary Parker

ABOUT Mary Parker

Once an enlisted Marine, I am an adult nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist where I use influence, innovation, and evidence to improve healthcare delivery...
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