When Pope Francis was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he was gravely ill with a life-threatening infection. Although he had a very good doctor, his nurse knew from experience that if she followed the doctor’s prescribed dosage of antibiotics, he would die. So she decided on her own to triple his dosage. That decision, which put her at professional risk, saved his life. Francis later explained that while the doctor lived in the laboratory; his nurse lived “on the frontier,” where he tries to live too.
By “on the frontier,” Francis means several things. First, you can’t lead from the back. You have to lead from the front and be “in dialogue with it every day.” While Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was more revered as the “Archbishop of the Slums” for how closely he worked with his most desperate parishioners, even standing up to drug dealers. Francis expects his own leaders to do the same. He’s said, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught in a web of obsessions and procedures.”
To Francis someone who is on the frontier is enough of a nonconformist to make decisions that are counterintuitive, but who has enough experience to be confident in those decisions. He wants people to possess the courage to go out and help anyone in need. “Wake up the world!” he’s declared. “Be witness of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living. You cannot bring home the frontier, but you have to live on the border and be audacious.”
Being audacious for audacity’s sake is not enough. Quite the opposite. What enables the pope to live on the frontier is his humility. He may act with authority, courage, and the wisdom of experience, but he allows room for other ideas because he knows he cannot possibly have all the answers himself.
To get the answers, insists Francis, one cannot stand back from a problem and study it from a distance. You must confront the problem on the frontier. As Francis explains it: “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a neighborhood and quite another to go there, live there, and understand the problem from the inside and study it. . . One cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty.”
The frontier is both a physical place and a mindset, and you separate the two at your peril. If you bring conventional ideas to an unconventional situation, you will fail both the people you need to help and yourself, just as you will fail if you only consider a situation remotely, missing the nuances that being present would allow you to experience.
As a test, if you feel comfortable, you’re not on the frontier.
In business too many of us avoid discomfort and, as a result, remain far from the frontier. How many of us confuse social media for socializing? How many of us read spreadsheets instead of talking with customers and suppliers? Send memos instead of email, email instead of call, and call instead of meet? Talk about what happened instead of being part of what’s happening? Think about how we’ve done things instead of how we could do things–and should?
And then we wonder how we missed someone’s simmering displeasure, another’s innovative new process, and the trend a third just jumped on.
You can’t win clean. So follow Francis’ example: roll up your sleeves, get out there and settle your own new frontier.
This article is excerpted from Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis by Jeffrey A. Krames. Copyright © 2015 Jeffrey A. Krames. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.
—Jeffrey A. Krames is the CEO and president of JK Literary Services, a publishing & literary agency that specializes in leadership, management, and other business-related works.