How about that pope?

October 5th, 2015

I recently attended a post-Yom Kippur meal designed to break the fast with the little Jewish community here in Casper, Wyoming. As we washed dishes and put away food, talk turned to politics and the diverse lineup of presidential hopefuls on both sides of the aisle. While Trump got the usual rolling of eyes, some painted the current Democratic and Republican members of Congress with the same pope with congressbroad brush strokes of contempt. “They’re all too much. No one wants to compromise.” It looked like the conversation might degenerate quickly into partisan opinion slinging when one of our members piped up: “How about that pope?” A statement more than a question it quickly served to unite us as heads nodded and smiles emerged.

How about that pope?

It’s not just Jews of various political affinities he has managed to unite — if for a season. Also rich and poor, Catholics and non-Catholics, Republicans and Democrats, immigrants and citizens. Most surprising of all though, is the way he has inspired the religious, the spiritual but not religious and the “nones.”

A few nights after the Yom Kippur break fast, I was at a meeting with some friends who don’t identify with a faith tradition at all. “I’m not religious or anything,” Eddie, said, “but the pope has restored my faith.” This from a man who doesn’t have or want any. Eddie went on to say that Pope Francis restored his faith in religion, in leaders, in humanity itself. Wow! How about that pope?

Who says religious leaders have no positive impact anymore? Pope Francis shows us how it can be done, all while staying true to our own particular values.

I offer six leadership lessons we can all learn from the pontiff — regardless of your beliefs:

  1. Don’t pander to the crowd. Pope Francis doesn’t lead by opinion polsl. He’s not trying to be all things to all people. He holds some values that liberal voters resonate with and some that conservative voters resonate with. He doesn’t apologize for what he believes or try to hide it or change it. Good leaders don’t pander to the crowd or change their stripes when polls fluctuate. They stick with what they believe. 
  2. Don’t pander to the institution. At the same time that Pope Francis doesn’t change his talking points for the crowd, he has distinguished himself from the institution he serves. Apparently he hasn’t changed Catholic doctrine, but he sure has donned new interpretive lenses, and a new narrative to go with it. Because of this he has somehow managed to inspire left and right alike. He has shown us how to be true to yourself and true to your core beliefs, even as you lead an ancient/aging institution into a new day. This kind of leadership is not for the faint of heart. 
  3. Align your behavior with your values. Many of us leaders say one thing but do another. Not Pope Francis. He says he cares about the poor and he spends time ministering to poor people. He says he cares about the common good and he lives in a modest apartment, not the papal palace. He says he cares about the well-being of the earth and he writes and speaks on it extensively. It almost goes without saying, but good leaders practice what they preach. 
  4. Use a big umbrella. While Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of some 1.2 billion Catholics, he addresses his message to all of humanity. One has the sense that he cares about all of us, not just “his” people. How very Jesus-like of him. Pope Francis is leading with a very large vision that encompasses the common good for all humanity, all creation, all religions, all immigrants, the whole planet. How can you expand your message to address people beyond your own circle?
  5. Talk softly and carry a large vision. Pope Francis spoke softly, almost cautiously, before Congress. But his words, and his life, packed a wallop. He didn’t need to shout. He didn’t need to worry about stage presence. His vision, his values, his life, his encyclical were his message.
  6. Be for something. A vision is most positive and engaging when it is for something, not against. Pope Francis is for the family, for religious freedom, for the poor. (Personally, I hope that his vision will expand and he and the Church will one day soon be for gay marriages and families.) Polarization increases when we only name what we are against. Jesus stood for the Kingdom of God. What and who do you stand for? 

Here’s a bonus leadership lesson for us spiritual leaders: Be steeped in your own spiritual life. Pray, read scripture, examine your soul, grow, pray some more. Let the very presence of God precede you, infuse you, and linger long after you have left. So may it be.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of "The Jew Named Jesus" and "Green Church."

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