Taking the cue from Pope Francis: A call to radical business leadership

The View from Taft


January 21, 2015

IN MARCH 2014, Fortune ranked Pope Francis as No. 1 on its World’s Greatest Leaders list. “This Pope means business,” the magazine proclaimed, citing the pontiff’s effective efforts to energize the faithful through his quotable and humble style and his wide-ranging reforms in the Vatican bureaucracy.

Books have come out on the leadership style of the Pope pitched at a business audience such as Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis by Jeffrey Krames and Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads by Chris Lowney. These books give a fascinating peek into the leadership style of this phenomenally popular Pope. To most business leaders, the Pope’s behaviors would be considered radically different from what his status “deserves.” These behaviors remind me of radical business leaders whose practices have become legendary.

SIMPLICITY. The Pope has avoided luxury and privilege in favor of simple living and work arrangements. Among business leaders, Andrew Grove, former CEO of the microprocessor giant Intel Corporation, refused to have a separate office and instead worked in a cubicle like all of his co-workers. The multi-billionaire Warren Buffet, who still lives in the same modest Nebraska house he bought in 1958, also comes to mind.

REACHING OUT TO THE LEAST. The Pope has made an art form of being with the least privileged among those he ministers to: stopping a motorcade to say hello to poor children, embracing the sick and disfigured, and greeting people in social gatherings starting from the back! He would remove leaders and replace them with those who can make the Church more relevant to the poor and vulnerable -- “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

While these aspects of the Pope’s people style are interesting, I want to highlight the most essential -- and radical -- elements of his leadership. These go into the very reasons why he acts in such caring ways.

A PASSION FOR HUMAN DIGNITY. The first essential element is that the pope has an overarching desire to dignify the human person and all persons -- speaking with love and respect to remind them of their God-given worth and wishing only for their good. And he pulls this off, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, thus triggering the now famous “Pope Francis effect.”

The management guru Tom Peters used to call this practice MBWA, or “managing by wandering around.” An exponent of such a caring-to-dignify approach was Horst Schulze, long-time former CEO of The Ritz-Carlton Hotels. He picked up litter and dirty ashtrays himself to show the importance of everyone’s giving the best service. He built a caring work culture around the motto “We Are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” designed to elevate employees’ self-esteem and prestige as service providers. He empowered employees to make key customer service decisions without having to consult their managers.

More radically, Schulze stopped offering adult magazines at the gift shops and adult video entertainment in the rooms because these contradicted the dignified service climate they wanted. His efforts paid off; the Ritz-Carlton won the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award twice.

FAITHFULNESS TO A VOCATION. Austen Ivereigh, author of the biography The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of the Radical Pope, traced the Pope’s radicalism to a very high level of identification with Christ himself, after a life-long study of the Gospel and mystic prayer. As a result, the Pope always focuses on the foundational mission of the Church -- to bring Christ’s message of unconditional love to everyone, especially to those who suffer. This has revitalized Catholics globally such that church contributions and attendance are increasing everywhere.

In today’s ever-shifting and me-too business environment, it is difficult to find such a steadfast sense of vocation among business leaders. The late Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. and Pixar was a rare exception. He famously said, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?” By sticking to his commitment to enhance how people interact with technology, Jobs helped to fundamentally alter the way we experience six product categories: personal computers, music players, online music, animated movies, mobile phones, and tablets! At $118 billion, the Apple brand is now the most valuable in the world, according to Interbrand.

During his speech at Malacañang, the Pope called on business leaders to view their work as a vocation and to “make decisions that will better distribute wealth, create employment and promote the holistic development of the poor.” Will enough radicals respond to the call?

Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is an associate professor at De La Salle University and chairman of the CSR Committee of the Management Association of the Philippines.