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Surprising Leadership Lessons From the Pope

Pope Francis didn't even want the job, but in his first four months leading the world's Catholics, he's made an intriguing example as a leader.
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Does your organization face challenges? Tough as they might be, I'll bet they pale compared to what Pope Francis faced when he took over as head of the 1.2 billion member Catholic Church.

Start with a series of horrendous pedophellia scandals, wind your way through the Vatican bank mess and it's no wonder Francis said he didn't want to be pope.

Nevertheless, in barely four months, he has emerged as an amazingly popular pontiff and intriguing leader. Here are some keys to his leadership style.

Symbolism

Let's start with the name that the man formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose for himself as pope: Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, according to a Vatican spokesperson. He wanted his papacy to be a celebration of the poor.

The name was fitting: St. Francis, known as the patron saint of animals and the environment, was a 12th Century soldier-turned-preacher who embraced a life of poverty. "Cardinal Bergoglio had a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice," his spokesperson told CNN.

Then, Pope Francis made headlines by eschewing some of the more ostentatious perks of his office. Instead of living in the papal palace, he lives in a small apartment, and instead of the Mercedes his predecessor used, he cruises around the Vatican in a five-year-old Ford Focus (and a stripped-down model, at that).

In other words, chances are your car is nicer than the pope's. That's a poignant message.

Humility--and higher standards

Besides the car and the apartment, the pope has made headlines with a few simple gestures that suggest an aura of humility. After his surprise election, he went by the hotel where he'd been staying to settle his bill in person. Then he called a newsstand in his home city of Buenos Aires to cancel his morning paper. (For that matter, find me another head of state who carries his own briefcase when he travels.)

Perhaps more substantively, Francis officiated Holy Thursday services not at St. Peter's Basilica but an Italian youth prison. He washed the feet of the inmates as part of the service, including a Muslim woman.

Humility is an under-appreciated leadership style. The only problem in drawing lessons here is that researchers have found it only works for men. A study in the Academy of Management Journal found that "humble leaders are more effective and better liked," but that humility often backfired for "young, nonwhite or female leaders," because they "were reported as having to constantly prove their competence to followers."

Regardless, the strategy seems to be working here. 

A spirit of openness

To be clear, Pope Francis is not going to come out in favor of gay marriage, or female or married priests, or sanctioning divorce. The Catholic church is slow to change, but in his own way Francis seems to be pushing for reform.

The pope has written that priests should welcome divorced and remarried Catholics and allow them to be active in parishes, and he has called priests who would not baptize the children of single mothers "today's hypocrites."

Francis also seems to be working hard to shepherd other church officials to follow his lead. He skipped an ornate concert in his honor, leaving his white throne conspicuously empty, and lectured bishops that they should be "close to the people" and avoid "the mentality of a prince."

Popularity and Leadership

It's early in Francis's papacy, but he's emerging as a unique religious leader and possibly a Latin American political force. Francis is the first non-European pope in almost 1,300 years.

With some simple but daring gestures -- from removing the bullet-proof glass on the Pope mobile to rolling down the windows in his car to greet a throng of people when his driver took a wrong turn in Brazil -- this pope has shown an unusually open brand of leadership.

Is Pope Francis a different kind of leader and can we draw leadership lessons from the world's second-largest religion? Let us know what you think in the comments. 

Like this post? Here's the best way to keep up with Bill Murphy Jr.

IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: Jul 25, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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