This past week the Catholic church elected a new pope. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not what most experts were predicting. He is older (75), the first Jesuit to lead the church, hails from Argentina, and is known to live simply and love the poor. Francis is the name he chose as his papal title and even that decision is sending a message that this new leader will be different.
Many of his early decisions as pope have already signaled how he intends to be and to lead. He appeared on the balcony following his election dressed in a simple white cassock. Before he blessed the raucous crowd, he paused and invited them to pray for him. He picked up his own luggage, paid his hotel bill, road the bus with the other cardinals, and even refused to sit on a throne when greeting his fellow cardinals after the conclave.
Most of today’s public leaders love the flash and dash of their positions and authority. They yearn for the spotlight and often boldly tout their views or denigrate their opponents. It’s unusual to hear them admit they were wrong or to see them serving others.
Not so with Pope Francis. His love for the poor meant something when he was a cardinal in Buenos Aires. He lived in a simple apartment so a poor missionary order could occupy the finer surroundings of the cardinal’s palace. In addition to cooking his own food and riding the bus to and from work, he visited the slums and genuinely interacted with the poorest fellow citizens.
All this makes sense if you are serving as the leader of a religious community but is there really room for humility in business and public sector organizations? My answer is a resounding “yes” and is based on a simple premise about effective leadership. When leaders are truly authentic to themselves and those they serve, humility emerges as the result.
I know my strengths and my faults. It would be tempting to hide the latter or to shift the blame toward others when my shortcomings cause harm. Yet, when I choose to serve others, I can’t simply pretend I’m something that I am not. As a leader, I need those who follow me to trust and respect me. They won’t do that if my words and actions don’t match.
Pope Francis seems destined to signal in a new era of leadership for the church he serves. While it remains to be seen how effective he will be I have no doubts about the value of humble leadership. It is another way to be and to lead that our world is desperately seeking.