Georgetown leaders assess the style, substance, and impact of his papacy.
By Bob Woods
Thanks to Pope Francis, students in Georgetown McDonough’s incoming undergraduate Class of 2019 received a unique introduction to leadership during their first few weeks on campus.
The popular First Year Seminar program contained a papal twist. The assigned books included Heroic Leadership, a study of the 450-year-old Society of Jesus by Jesuit seminarian-
turned-investment-banker Chris Lowney.
“I’m sure part of the inspiration for that assignment was Pope Francis,” says David A. Thomas, dean of the Georgetown McDonough School of Business. “In every one of those seminars, there will be a discussion about Francis.”
The seminars served as the perfect appetizers for the main course, Pope Francis’ East Coast tour of the United States, which began Sept. 22 with three days in Washington, D.C. With news of his visit, the buzz that already had been humming around Georgetown ever since Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, had been elected the Roman Catholic Church’s 266th pontiff on March 13, 2013, hit a joyous crescendo.
The freshmen’s Francis-filled lessons were most welcome. He is, after all, the first Jesuit to occupy the Chair of St. Peter. But perhaps most notable is his distinct brand of leadership. During his brief papacy, Francis so far has shown himself to be deeply rooted in the Jesuit precept of service to others, a trait that is consistent with who he was long before he became pope.
“He’s devoted his life to serving the poor,” says Thomas, “and to the idea of true leadership being service.”
THE EMBODIMENT OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP
Almost from the moment he was elected by the College of Cardinals to succeed the retiring Pope Benedict XVI, Bergoglio left little doubt as to the direction he wanted to take the Church, beginning with adopting the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the 12th- and 13th-century figure who eschewed his family wealth for a monastic life of service to the poor and the environment.
“Other popes have had the same message,” says Rev. Kevin O’Brien (C ’88), S.J., vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown, “but Francis has been very insistent in keeping this message at the forefront — servant leadership and caring for those most in need first.”
Examining not only the style but also the substance of his leadership thus far, it’s evident that Pope Francis desires to extend his influence beyond the 1.1 billion Catholics in the world and to tackle head-on a wide range of religious and secular issues — even contentious ones — that impact the entire global population. Whether his leadership translates into moving the needle in terms of church membership remains to be seen, but he certainly has established a clear leadership style.
He’s devoted his life to serving the poor, and to the idea of true leadership being service.”
—David A. Thomas, Dean and William R. Berkley Chair
“At the core of his style is servant leadership. That’s part of the Jesuit training,” says Robert Bies, a professor of management in the McDonough School and founder of its Executive Master’s in Leadership Program. “But he’s also a savvy person who understands how to exercise power and influence.”
Leaders are signal senders, Bies adds, and from the start of his papacy, Francis has been deliberate in sending signals of hope, humility, and humanity. Unlike many of his predecessors, he doesn’t wear opulent clothing, he lives in a simple apartment instead of the Vatican palace, and his “Popemobile” isn’t a Mercedes but a Jeep Wrangler. On his first Holy Thursday, Francis followed the tradition of the washing of feet, but he turned heads by including a Muslim woman. He was famous for regularly walking, sans his priest’s collar, around the slums of Buenos Aires, and he continues to join with the poor wherever his papal tours lead him.
“He makes that human connection,” Bies says, “and that’s part of his leadership that attracts people. There are so many Catholics who say he hasn’t been talking about abortion or other issues. His response is, I’m going to go where the people are — the people are hurting, they’re poor. That’s what real leadership is: Connecting first to where people are before you can take them to where you want them to go. As a result, when people look at him — I refer to him affectionately as the rock star in Rome — he inspires hope. It’s all about this emotional human connection.”
WALKING THE TALK
Valeria Bellagamba, associate dean for academic and global operations for Georgetown McDonough, is struck by Pope Francis’ openness and inclusivity.
“He has taken a unique stance in the rejection of norm, and he reaches out to everybody, not only Catholics,” says Bellagamba, who takes special pride in being a fellow Argentine. “He declared that God redeemed all of us, not just the Catholics. He is there for everybody.”
This combination of inclusivity, humility, and savvy has allowed Francis to straddle the fence between religious leader, business leader, and pop-culture phenomenon, says Marlene Morris Towns, Georgetown McDonough teaching professor of marketing. No wonder he’s been on the covers of Time, Esquire (named its Best Dressed Man of 2013), Fortune, and Rolling Stone, she adds.
In analyzing Francis’ leadership style, “the term that seems most applicable is moderate realist,” Towns says. “He brings his spiritual beliefs to shed a realistic perspective on issues, whether they’re political, social, or business. He’s not afraid to voice his opinions, which also makes him all that much more approachable and admirable, especially with the young.”
Much of Towns’ research looks at millennial consumers, social media, youth, and urban consumers with whom Francis is resonating worldwide.
“He’s a lot more subdued,” she says, “and eschews the flashier accoutrement that goes along with the papacy. Being more approachable and less formal also makes him seem more open and welcoming, but it also matches what he says and what he puts out there. He doesn’t just say it; he walks the talk.”
A PRINCIPLED LEADER
Pope Francis seems to have assumed his particular leadership role at just the right time, evidenced by his embrace of populist hot buttons being pushed across the world, such as income inequality, social injustice, and environmentalism. He has railed against the excesses of capitalism, famously asked “Who am I to judge?” when questioned about the LGBT community, and issued a papal encyclical calling for global action to combat climate change.
He makes that human connection, and that’s part of his leadership that attracts people.”
—Robert Bies, Professor of Management
Of course, Francis is not the first pope to confront non-religious issues, but he’s addressing them as a tactical politician rather than a spiritual icon.
“John Paul II was speaking about social justice,” Bies notes, referring to his rise during the fall of the Soviet Union and the Solidarity movement in Eastern Europe. “Benedict talked about the environment. But it is the style of how Francis does it. He speaks in human terms, not just abstract religious principles.”
Effective leadership is about managing risk, too, and by challenging the status quo, as he does. Francis appears unafraid of alienating people on either side of the ideological boundaries that have become so rigid, no matter the topic. He has especially unnerved traditionalists and conservatives, many who bristle at what they consider to be his liberal leanings.
“That speaks to another aspect of this pope, that he is courageous in acting as a principled leader,” Thomas says. “He has his principles, and he’s leading by those, even in the face of knowing there could be substantial resistance.”
Francis has certainly rocked the Church’s ship of state by taking on the bureaucracy of the Vatican, specifically the powerful Vatican Bank. Astute, as well, in recognizing the need to solicit disparate views on controversial subjects, early on Francis tapped an ideologically and culturally diverse international octet of cardinals known as the Council of Eight to assist in his decision-making.
“He hates the status quo,” Bellagamba says. “He’s a reformer. He saw problems with the Church, and he’s working hard to reinvent the organization. One of the most important things he’s done probably was to name the Group of Eight from all over the world. That is very inclusive. It’s not about ‘I’m the boss.’ That is quite a change.”
Another delicate balancing act that Francis faces surrounds long-held Church doctrines. Progressives are cheered by his seemingly progressive statements regarding homosexuality, abortion, women’s roles in the Church, and celibacy in the priesthood. But that doesn’t mean he’s about to change bedrock doctrines that prohibit same-sex marriage, ordination of women, or marriage of priests.
“I don’t see him as necessarily being a gadfly and wanting to rock the boat and push people to make change,” Towns says.
Thomas agrees, predicting that Pope Francis will steer clear of outright changing such foundational doctrines.
“He’s committed to changing the culture and direction of the Church,” the dean says. “Part of that is taking the Church out of the business of being focused on defining some humanities as better than other humanities: ‘Who am I to judge?’ ”
Nonetheless, in a letter made public in September, the pontiff shook the establishment by granting priests “the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” during the upcoming yearlong jubilee celebration of Catholic faith.
Also, there may be some doctrinal movement around divorce, remarriage, and receiving Holy Communion and other sacraments.
“He has been very intentional and public about wanting to address that issue,” Fr. O’Brien says. “The majority of divorced and remarried Catholics don’t get an annulment and don’t feel they have a place in the Church. He wants to be more welcoming to them, while retaining the Church’s tradition on marriage.”
Indeed, just a week after his statement on abortion, Francis announced sweeping changes to the Church’s arduous annulment process, essentially speeding it up to make it easier for Catholics to remarry. He stopped short, however, of resolving the matter of taking Communion. The synod of bishops at the Vatican in October did not make any definitive statement on divorce and remarried Catholics, either, but the coming months may show further movement on these issues.
A LARGER SENSE OF PURPOSE
Gathering the Church’s local leaders and listening to their different views on key issues demonstrates Pope Francis’ competency, Bies believes. His political skills give him the “ability to understand what needs to be done, how to move people,” he says. “That’s a competency that often gets overlooked. We look at popes as just religious leaders. Francis embodies a much wider range of leadership skills than previous popes. He has the ability to understand people, to build coalitions, to communicate a compelling vision. For me, his skill is getting people to transcend where they are, to a larger sense of purpose.”
While the Class of 2019 enjoyed an immediate immersion into Francis Mania, they won’t be the only Georgetown students to explore the pope’s leadership skills.
“I’m actually going to be teaching some of that in an Executive MBA program on ethical leadership later this year,” Bies reveals. “I’ll be using a mini case study on leading cultural change, which is what Francis is doing.”
The pope’s pop culture appeal already was a topic of conversation in Towns’ marketing classes last year, and it’s likely to come up again following his September visit.
“I’ve never discussed a pope in class before,” she says, “but he’s made such an impression via social media and viral videos.” In the marketing sense, Towns sees Francis rebranding the Catholic Church. “I don’t know if that’s intentional, but he has put a public face on the Church, one that is not intimidating, ostracizing, or exclusive.”
Leaders in other fields would do well to follow that example, Thomas says. “There are a number of ways in which his leadership has some lessons for leaders in all kinds of organizations.”
“One question that all leaders should put to themselves in watching Francis is: Why has he been so effective at mobilizing people around his vision?” Thomas says. “By the way he lived his life up to this moment, he has the moral authority. Often times, leaders want to talk about taking an organization to a new place, but they don’t galvanize people’s imagination because they don’t have the moral authority.”
It gets back to servant leadership. By adhering to his Jesuit background, Pope Francis is challenging every individual to follow his lead, Fr. O’Brien says in very personal terms. “He’s challenged me as a priest, an alumnus, and an administrator to make sure that we do not insulate ourselves from the voices of those on the margins who desperately need our help, our thinking, and our service. He’s a good example for all of us.”
Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2015