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What the Pope can teach HBS students about leadership

Kevin Sharer is a Senior Lecturer at HBS. He joined the HBS Strategy Unit in 2012 after serving as the President and then CEO of Amgen, the world’s largest biotechnology company, for 20 years. In this article he looks at how students should think about their development as leaders – and what they can learn from Pope Francis.

My hunch is that most HBS students care about what kind of leader they want to be and are in a period of intense learning and development while at HBS. There are so many books written, theories espoused, and studies done that are all trying to understand, describe, and teach leadership that it can be confusing and downright unhelpful to the aspiring leader. Before sharing a few things from my journey, I would like to recommend two things for your consideration. One is our rightly popular, real, thought provoking and helpful authentic leadership development course which helps you get to the core of your personal journey. The other is a relatively short but immensely useful book by John Kotter, titled A Force for Change. His book describes the essence of leadership compared to management. Leaders imagine, describe, and enlist others in creating a future different than the present. Managers are able to develop a plan, put the resources in place to achieve the plan, and guide, monitor, and as necessary adjust the plan to assure implementation. Truly successful entrepreneurs and large enterprise executives must be skilled in both disciplines.

So, where to start? You probably already have taken notice of leaders you admire and maybe do not admire as examples of things you would like to emulate or avoid. Good, keep it up and try to build your own personal “what good looks like for me” compendium. I hope you keep your eye on the less distant than you think horizon when others will look to you as an example. Moreover, I hope you aspire to be a model of what good leadership looks like to others and the people you directly lead. Nothing undermines a leader more than the hypocrisy of acting differently in a negative way than the values the leader and organization hold as bedrock, and nothing so inspires and empowers others as seeing a leader do the right thing under difficult circumstances. In short, a role model leader aspires to do the right thing in the right way, be exceptionally competent at the technical details of the job, be self-aware and be on a lifelong journey of improvement, and have the courage and judgment to take smart risks that at the CEO level might put their very job on the line.

I offer for your consideration a person who could very well be the pre-eminent role model leader on the world stage today. You might not have guessed that my candidate is Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church. He is a seventy-seven year old Argentinian who has been an “organization man” his entire adult life and became pope in March of 2013. His remit is vast in virtually every dimension whether it is organization scale, nature of the job or pressing challenges across the entire fabric of the enterprise. He has few practical direct levers of control except the fact that the 3,000 or so bishops or worldwide general managers of the church report directly to him – talk about a difficult to manage or lead structure! Moreover, while the church has vast assets in art and treasure, his direct, liquid financial resources are actually small in both absolute and relative terms. While at the archdiocese or bishop level there are enormous cash flows, direct control of these resources are in local hands. His leadership challenge is of the highest order in every dimension.

So, what has he done and why is it so noteworthy? He does have some advantages in that he is a very experienced leader, knows his organization exceedingly well, cannot be fired, has the world’s attention, and can hire or fire his 3,000 direct reports at will. He also has the gift of a Jesuit’s very keen mind, a clear vision for what he wants to achieve, and is willing to take risks and behave differently than his immediate predecessor.

However, none of these factors make him in my estimation a candidate for today’s preeminent role model leader. His actions are what so compel attention, admiration, and example. Pope Francis has spoken often and eloquently on the plight of the world’s disadvantaged. His personal example is one of humility in dress, transport, living accommodations in a simple apartment, meals in the cafeteria, and who he fired when he told a European bishop who had built an over the top personal residence to step down. No one of these acts perhaps would be compelling but their combination over time reinforces and makes more impactful his words and teaching.

Another way a role model leader instructs is by the people he or she appoints to key jobs or removes from key jobs. Pope Francis has quietly made many, many moves in the Curia or executive committee of the church to install like-minded leaders to support, implement and amplify his messages worldwide including removing individuals associated with or who failed to act decisively and well in the face of the wide ranging, tragic and horrific pedophilic scandals. A role model leader is understanding and knows even the best occasionally fall short of the mark, but when the line is crossed decisive action no matter how difficult must be taken or credibility of both the organization and leader crumble. I guarantee that you will be faced sometime in your career with a person who delivers results but consistently violates organization values even after counseling. Will you have the courage to take decisive action?

A third way the pope is leading is by his symbolic or near symbolic acts. He wants his organization to be relevant and authentic in the modern world. He has called on his Muslim leadership colleagues to join him in condemning today’s spiral of violence and barbarism. He took a stand that carried risk. He stunned the world by accepting gay priests in his recently reported “who am I to judge” comment to the press. He does have a long, long way to go before fully accepting gay people as deserving totally equal rights, but for his organization and in his context, this statement and the feelings behind it were significant. I could go on, but you get the idea that this leader through his actions, who he appoints and removes, his words, and his themes has much to teach those of us who aspire to be better and role model leaders.


October 1, 2014
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