Leading with Humility. Lessons from Pope Francis

Pope Francis, the Pontiff of the Catholic Church and spiritual leader to 1.2 billion Roman Catholic’s worldwide, is known for doing things that are considered contrary to the traditional role of a Pontiff. As Pontiff, he has a full security detail at all times, and personal valet’s, drivers, attendants, private chef, bishops, maids, and other perks.  But these things tend to insulate a leader of great stature like the Pope.

Since arriving at the Vatican in March of 2013, Pope Francis has elected to discard traditional perks.  He does not live in the papal apartments, traditionally reserved for the Pontiff. He kept the personal driver, but changed the vehicle to a Ford Focus.

Much to the consternation of the Vatican Security Detail, and the Security details of each jurisdiction in which he appears, Pope Francis has made it a habit of mingling with the crowds of his adoring followers wherever he travels. At the Vatican, he has stepped into food lines at the Vatican cafeteria, in order to talk with workers there, and to get to know them on a personal level.

He washed the feet of a Muslim prisoner, and chooses not to judge with regard to the church’s view of gay members.  He wants to know his flock, so he meets with them, listens to them, and he always prays for them. He even gives tips on happiness for a more fulfilled life.

He is attempting an amazing turnaround…the reformation of one of the oldest and greatest institutions in the history of mankind, and doesn’t want to be idolized, lifted up, or pandered to just because of his position in the Church. He is setting a new direction for the Catholic Church, which desperately needs reformation, and is doing so by setting himself up as a servant leader, one with great humility.

A strong leader must take on the mantle of humility if s/he expects to have loyal followers, or to get any meaningful work accomplished.  Organizations are comprised of groups of people with views different from our own as leaders.  People in organizations have needs and requests, many unrelated to their work.  They need to feel a sense of loyalty for the leadership, and alignment and commitment to the mission.

If the leader is not trustworthy, s/he is not going to have anyone followers.  Establishing trust takes time, consistent behavior, and a lot of patience.  Developing trust can be a much larger, more difficult problem many leaders face.  It may be the best place to start when reforming or turning around organizations.

We need to listen to our people with empathy, while still holding them accountable to achieve the vision and mission we have been charged to execute by our boards and shareholders.  We need to establish trust with our constituents, and a humble approach does just that.  Without committed followers, we cannot possibly succeed in our work as leaders.  In my view, humility is one of the biggest hallmarks of effective servant leadership.

An organization will follow its leader, good or bad. What sort of organization are you leading? I’d enjoy connecting with you and listening to your thoughts on this topic.