Leadership lessons from Pope Francis: Avoid stagnation by seeking advice and hiring pragmatically

One of the people: Pope Francis is greeted by Raymond Rico of Queens during his arrival in New York (Source: Getty)
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope in 2013, he inherited a Church marred by financial scandal and child abuse. Like any new boss trying to turn around the fortunes of a large organisation, he has made some big changes.
But his liberal stance on homsexuality, divorce and politically charged statements have drawn criticism from the conclave, Catholics and the wider public.
Indeed, he has raised eyebrows during his current visit to the US – yesterday, he gave a bold speech to Congress.
In his quest to reform, and his need to appease, what can business leaders learn from Pope Francis’s way of doing things?


In an interview with Antonio Spadaro, Pope Francis reflected on the mistakes of his early career: “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative,” he said.
But the pontiff’s recent encyclical urging more action on climate change demonstrated a willingness to drive a more modern agenda, and he has deliberately sought out disruptive perspectives, which are different to his own, avoiding the myopia which threatens any leader.
As John L Allen Jr explains in The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church, one of the Pope’s first moves following his election was to establish a council of cardinal advisers, comprising eight members with different ideological views, for him to consult on each of his major decisions.
He has also been known to drop in unannounced on meetings of the Synod of Bishops – a group of advisers whose meetings Pope John Paul II would sit through reading a book.


In an interview in 2010, Francis admitted: “I don’t have all the answers; I don’t even have all the questions, and there are always new questions coming forward.”
It is difficult to show a respect for doctrine and embrace the attitudes of the twenty-first century. But like any good leader, the Pope has been sure to hire senior staff who can give him support and the inside track.
His decision to appoint the Australian cardinal George Pell, a staunch and controversial conservative, to head up the Vatican’s financial reforms, shows a willingness to put the Church’s interests before his own personal preferences.
And as Jeffry A Krames explains in Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis, the pontiff strategically chose to promote former Holy See diplomat and Vatican “insider” Pietro Parolin to Vatican secretary of state. “Upon his election, Francis was a Vatican outsider,” says Krames.
“But he was not naive enough to believe that he could execute his doctrine of inclusivity without someone who was intimately familiar with the nuances of the Vatican.”


Listening to the feedback of 1.1bn followers might be difficult, but the Pope has made efforts to demonstrate that he is approachable by showing solidarity with ordinary people.
He has chosen to shun the splendour of the Papal Apartments for a humbler residence, drive a Ford Focus and shop for his own spectacles.
As Allen Jr notes, he also makes the time to speak with those in need, including a Vatican critic ill in hospital and an Italian woman who asked for his help in solving her daughter’s murder.
Managers would do well to follow his example.
A recent poll by Harris found that 52 per cent of employees think that their boss’s leadership was weakened by not taking the time to speak with them, and 51 per cent thought that refusing to talk to subordinates reduced their boss’s effectiveness.
A close relationship will encourage staff to give more honest feedback about what changes they may like to see, and where where they might be losing faith.

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