Pope Francis I: Level 5 Leader?

The election last week of Pope Francis I sent the media scrambling to unearth available details of his past, sordid and otherwise, in an effort to build a character profile of the new Pope. Aside from the disputed issue of failing to protect two Jesuits from the violent Argentinian political regime in the 1970′s, the main conclusion is that he is a man of genuine humility.
This conclusion was supported by his actions during the pre- conclave, and post-election periods in Rome: staying in modest quarters, travelling by bus, collecting his own baggage from his hotel and paying his own bill. While cynics may claim that this merely could have been shrewdly effective and symbolic theater, further scrutiny reveals that it is in fact a consistent behaviour pattern of many years. It is said that in Buenos Aires he lived in a modest one-room apartment instead of the “palatial Archbishop’s mansion”, made his own bed, cooked his own meals, and spent a large percentage of his time in the slums working with the poor. Pope Francis it seems, when it comes to humility, is the real deal.
What does this have to do with a blog on business leadership? Watching this Pope reminded me of Stanford management guru Jim Collins’ best seller Good to Great. In it, he identifies Level 5 leaders as rare yet highest in achieving sustainable results. Specifically, they “embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.” So far, it would appear that the Catholic Church has elected at worst, a leader with half (the tougher half to develop?) of the Level 5 pre-requisites; at best a master reformer for the organization.
Collins again:”Level 5 leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated…are fanatically driven,infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results…display workmanlike diligence-more plow horse than show horse…are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the (organization) great, no matter how big or hard the decisions.”
While his record of church reform in Argentina and his work with the poor shows leadership authenticity and skill, those localized challenges pale in comparison to the ones currently and globally facing the Catholic Church: systemic, longstanding financial and child-abuse scandals, declining, disenfranchised membership, and perhaps most important, an entrenched, rigid and highly political Curia. The Church needs change, yet has been known for centuries as (and remains) the poster-child of institutional intransigence (albeit also the oldest continuously operating organization on the planet; they must be doing something right).
And so begins a case study in the making; one that leaders of all organizations in business, government and non-profit sectors might consider observing and learning from. The publicity surrounding the Vatican has highlighted the current problems and opportunities facing the church, and from his first few addresses, it appears that the new Pope clearly understands and holds strong opinions about them too. Whether he does indeed possess the professional will and “fanatical drive” to rattle and move that Vatican mountain remains to be seen, but his history to date would demonstrate that he is certainly not afraid to swim against the current, and to live out his strongly-held values.
Perhaps if he succeeds, it will force some broad reflection about Level 5 leadership. Many leaders at lower levels also possess professional will, and a results-oriented focus. It seems the humility factor is much more rare, and is perhaps the key factor in motivating employees, members, and all other stakeholders to embrace the values and vision of the organization, to commit intellectually and emotionally, to take ownership by placing the objectives of the organization ahead of their own. Difficult stuff; Level 5 for sure. If he succeeds, we all might do well to take a page out of his book on combining and developing the two powerful leadership behaviours.
So as the Pope starts off on this difficult journey, he can take comfort that he has already mastered the more difficult half of the Level 5 leader formula. I will watch with interest to see whether his will can withstand and dissolve the anticipated resistance, and restore the church to its original mission and faithful constituents. It’s a monumental task, and I wish him well; God bless and Godspeed.

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