Pope’s leadership style: ‘He did the laundry’

Katerina Francisco

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Pope’s leadership style: ‘He did the laundry’
Pope Francis emphasizes leading by serving, says a best-selling author who stresses society's need for 'new habits of leadership'

MANILA, Philippines – When asked to describe the leadership style of Pope Francis, the young Jesuit seminarians who knew him in Argentina gave a surprising answer: “He did the laundry.”

Before he helmed the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church, he was Fr Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Before he won the admiration of both Catholics and non-believers for a more welcoming stance on key social issues, he had already earned the respect of seminarians he led in Buenos Aires because he lived his message of leading by serving.

The way he uses his lifestyle for effective leadership is how the first Jesuit pope inspires his followers, according to Chris Lowney, author of the book Pope Francis: Why He Leads The Way He Leads.

In a forum at the Ateneo de Manila University on Tuesday, December 2, Lowney discussed how the Pope’s focus on authentic service is helping society form “new habits of leadership.”

A former Jesuit seminarian who entered the corporate world, Lowney has written about the leadership styles he learned from the Pope’s religious order. His best-selling book is Heroic Leadership, which is based on his experience with the Jesuits as well as JP Morgan and Co., a company he served as managing director. 

‘Authentic power is service’

Lowney considers the Pope one of the best examples of “heroic leadership.”

In his interviews with seminarians, the author painted a picture of a man who walked his talk.

When Argentina suffered a financial crisis, Bergoglio reportedly told seminarians that they would have to do the chores themselves.

“When Bergoglio took over the seminary in Buenos Aires, it was a time of real financial crisis. He [told seminarians], ‘From now on, we ourselves would have to clean the hallways, we are going to have to wash the dishes afterward, and I will do the laundry,'” Lowney narrated.

“[The seminarians] told me that if you got up early in the morning and you were in the basement of the Jesuit seminary, you would see Bergoglio throwing everybody’s dirty underwear, dirty sports clothes into the big washing machines of the seminary.”

Another anecdote on Francis’ leadership style is his custom of celebrating the Holy Thursday washing of the feet ritual in jails, hospitals, and homes for the elderly.

SYMBOL OF SERVICE. This handout picture released by the Vatican press office shows Pope Francis (R) kissing the feet of a young offender after washing them during a Mass at the church of the Casal del Marmo youth prison on the outskirts of Rome as part of Holy Thursday. Photo by AFP/Osservatore Romano

It was a conscious decision that underscored Francis’ point that authentic power is service, Lowney said.

“The point of power is not to serve yourself. The point of power is to serve something bigger than yourself,” Lowney said.

But he added that the challenge is to be “internally capable” of putting others’ needs before one’s own.

“Whenever we have an important choice, the first thing we must do is make ourselves free internally. Only when I’m really free am I in a position to make a good choice, guided only by my objective, mission, purpose greater than self,” Lowney said.

“Part of the challenge in leading this way is, ‘Am I really able to get over myself?’ I think the training of the Pope gives him spiritual technology to do this,” he added.

Since becoming Pope in 2013, the Argentine-born Francis has taken the world by storm. Hailed for advocating a pro-poor stance and a more welcoming Church, he has consistently been named as one of the most influential persons in the world.

Fr Emmanuel Alfonso, SJ, executive director of Jesuit Communications, said the Pope’s personal approach to leadership makes him a leader with the potential to inspire change.

“This is the one pope who will usher in the great change that the world needs,” Alfonso said.

Involved in reality

But Lowney said having a sense of purpose isn’t enough. To lead effectively, one has to be in touch with reality. And for Francis, this means understanding the lives of the poor.

Early on in his papacy, Francis has espoused a “poor Church for the poor,” rejecting a Church that does not go out to meet the marginalized. 

This thinking was already apparent in Francis’ work in Buenos Aires, Lowney said.

He told the story of how Francis had assigned seminarians to walk around the neighborhood and visit the “unhappy, the poor, the alienated, ” to see if the Church could help them.

Lowney said Francis did not mean for the seminarians to educate the poor, but to have the poor teach them.

“[Francis said], ‘When you go out there, you will be learning about life from these people. Before you teach them about anything, they will teach you.'” (READ: Cardinal Tagle challenges Filipinos: Inspire the Pope)

How did Francis know who was following his orders? “At the end of the day, the seminarians would come back. And Francis would just look: Who has dusty shoes?” 

Lowney said this shows Francis’ emphasis on the world’s peripheries.

“The Pope’s message is, we can’t be cut off from reality. We must be in touch with reality to draw meaningful conclusions of what is going on here,” Lowney said.

“If we’re not really engaged in the world, we’re not living part of our calling.” – Rappler.com

Join Rappler in a 100-day countdown to Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines: a journey from the Vatican to Tacloban. Tweet us your thoughts using the hashtag #PopeFrancisPH!

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