Pope Francis Will Be The Most Awesome Leader Of 2014

It's hard for a startup to make a pivot. What about the Catholic Church?

Pope Francis had a hell of a 2013: the cardinal formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio got rid of the popemobile, was named Time's person of the year, and disrupted the culture of the Catholic Church.

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Much ink has been spilled on the papacy's renewed potency, most notably in James Carroll's long-form profile of Pope Francis for the New Yorker's "World Changers" issue, an illustration in which the pontiff can be found making snow angels on a winter's evening. Here's a handful of papal nuggets to show what makes Francis so singularly awesome—in every sense of the term.

He Serves As An Example

For more than 30 years, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have been researching the nature of leadership, distilling the behavior of top leaders into five practices. The first of which is to model the way: for exemplary leaders serve as examples.

With that in mind, let's consider this scene from Carroll's piece, where he's at one of the Pope's open audiences in Vatican City. In the front row, he sees a couple in their thirties:

Unlike others at the railing, who were waving and calling, 'Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!,' they held back. But when Francis turned to them the woman leaned forward with such gravity that the Pope took notice and stopped. Tears streaked her face. Francis reached for her hand, which she took as license to put her mouth by his ear. She whispered something. Francis looked startled, drew back a bit, then turned to her partner. The Pope embraced him, then drew the woman in. They stood like that for a while, the couple enveloped in the arms of the Bishop of Rome.

The pope puts his hands on the man's head, made a sign of the cross, and continued on. When the crowd started to leave, Carroll went to the couple. The man wept, he says, and the woman told him that her husband had a worsening brain tumor. "We came just for this," she said, "for his blessing, whatever it is—physical, emotional, or spiritual."

So what is it that Francis is modeling?

He represents a radical change of tone

Rather than being a wager of culture wars, Francis positions the church as a battlefield hospital.

"I see clearly," he says in the Catholic magazine America, "that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds."

He is a "demographic pivot"

There are 1.2 billion Catholics; more than 40% live in Latin America. Francis is the 266th iteration of Pope and the first Latin-American one, which Carroll reads as "a signal of the Church's demographic pivot."

And a major culture shift

Francis has gotten critical with himself: in the Joy of the Gospel, his first papal letter to the world, he wrote that he must "think about a conversion of the papacy." But as Carroll notes, he's also critiqued the intrigues of the court, speaking of the "psychology of princes" and the "spiritual adultery" he sees in those who try to climb up the ladder of episcopal appointments.

He has a Shocking level of humiility

Back in July, a reporter asked him about gay priests. Francis's answer is the ultimate in pivoting the position of the Catholic Church, and our Bottom Line:

If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?

Hat tip: The New Yorker

[Image: Flickr user Michel Temer | Anderson Riedel]

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  • I appreciate that you are speaking at the level of the Method here, not ideology. And you offer it as lessons that can be learned no matter our affiliations. I am not a big fan of any church but there are leaders who arise everywhere and can teach us something if we look at the meta level. Thanks for doing that.

    My second book out in summer (jossey bass) about 4 Game Changing Archetypes. They change industries (religion here), Social systems ( and issues they create), cultural paradigms (beliefs that exclude) and fourth, reconnect us to higher intentions ). This Pope is working on the last one. I offer stories of people I have worked closely with for decades as exemplars. He is mostly acting in the last Archetypal role, reconnecting people to a Biblical interpretation of Jesus and his teachings, that precedes the various reforming councils. I am not a scholar here or even very connected, but I see it in your piece. Thanks for the very thoughtful piece. May I send a galley?