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Lessons Learned

5 Leadership Lessons From Pope Francis

Visiting the U.S. this week, Pope Francis is showing off a leadership style we can all learn from.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

"Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change." Those were the words shared—on Twitter—by Pope Francis, Time's "Person of The Year" in 2013, who assumed the pontificate that year and has since projected a transformational leadership style.

That approach has earned him titles like "Holy Reformer" and "The People’s Pope." In New York City today on a visit to the United States, Pope Francis reflects not just the changing tenor of the Catholic Church but evolving ideas about leadership itself. That makes his trip this week a perfect time for entrepreneurs, CEOs, politicians, and other leaders of all stripes to reflect on their own leadership styles. Here are five lessons all of them can learn from the Pope's.

1. Be Accessible

Pope Francis is arguably best known for availability and openness to the public. On his first day as Pope, he reversed the tradition of blessing the people by inviting them to bless him instead. He's since decided to ride in a bus with his team rather than in a bulletproof limousine. Pope Francis has also been seen getting around Rome in a Ford Focus and a Fiat during his U.S. visit.

Personal, handwritten thank-you notes and birthday lunch invitations to the homeless of Rome take priority in his schedule and exemplify his leadership vision.

Those who aren't spiritual leaders should also rethink what their most important responsibilities are—people over processes, names over numbers. Accessibility sows trust and loyalty among colleagues and customers, making other transformations possible.

2. Don't Ignore Social Media

The Pope is a tweeting aficionado. His primary Twitter handle (@Pontifex) is the English-language equivalent of eight others—in Latin, Arabic, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and German. And the English account alone has 7.3 million followers. In other words, communication matters, especially digitally.

Social media has proved one of the most effective—and democratic—mediums for influencing current generations. Its 140-character interface is clear, concise, and relatable, whether you're a Starbucks barista, a Fortune 500 CEO, or anyone in between. For any business leader who has an idea to offer or a message to convey, social media is the main avenue for doing so. But bear in mind that the social sphere is about sparking conversation, not dictating from on high. The Pope's tweets are popular not just because he's the Pope, but because they're humble, inviting, and pluralistic.

3. Flatten Your Organization

Pope Francis bypassed bureaucracy and reevaluated his organizational structure. He started with his own title, changing it from the "Supreme Pontiff" to the "Bishop of Rome." Upon adjusting and delegating some of the papacy's traditional responsibilities, he took a radical approach to age-old customs and rearranged his management team, reducing its sense of hierarchy.

As a result of Pope Francis’s innovative methods, the organization of the papacy got flatter. As a result, the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work referred to him as an "intrepreneur"—someone who generates genuine, sustainable change in an organization that's resistant to it.

Flattening an organization can be one of the best ways business leaders can institute their vision without relying on the prevailing means. Restructure, revamp, and realign so that the top leadership drives the vision, and the subsequent layers can execute and sustain it.

4. Take Risks

In the first few months of his papacy, Pope Francis took risks. He made unprecedented claims and unconventional decisions. "To listen and to follow your conscience means that you understand the difference," he wrote, reaching out to atheists and agnostics. He also proclaimed a year of jubilee for women who've had abortions but have since chosen to reflect on the Church's teachings on the issue. It's worth nothing that in both cases, Pope Francis didn't revise Catholic doctrine, but his leadership style offered a refreshing new perspective to many who might have previously felt shut out.

In the business world today, many leaders are blinded by the fear of failure. Big changes are hard to make—they take time, and often many people, to institute—but messages are easy to change. Still, risk is vital to your business's growth and your own development as a leader. Risk can help you rise, even though it sometimes leads to failure. But it will always prove a worthy teacher.

5. Value Input From Subordinates

Pope Francis has shown he recognizes the intrinsic value of every person. First, he decided to transform the Synod of Bishops under his leadership into a decision-making body rather than a ceremonial group. And within his first 10 months at the Vatican, Pope Francis washed the feet of laity prisoners, women, and Muslims, rather than performing the ritual only on priests. He also refocused the role of bishops toward more pastoral activities, premised on the notion that human relationships should be esteemed above all else.

Leaders should approach the people in their organizations much the same. There's real value in your lower subordinates—what they think and believe and the skills they offer—to achieve real progress. But it's up to leaders to go out and seek that value, then develop it in everyone they lead.

In just two years, Pope Francis has taught us another lesson as well: It's important to act. Start cultivating the right leadership style now, and you'll begin writing your legacy today, rather than waiting for it to catch up with you later.

William Vanderbloemen is the coauthor of Next: Pastoral Succession That Works and president and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group, a startup that leads in executive search for churches, ministries, and faith-based organizations.

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