Leadership styles affect us all. The Mideast conflict has raised questions about the inability of world leaders to resolve the crisis without violence. In this country, discussion of strong leadership has further expanded as it affects matters of debt, spending, and health care – all burning issues.
Leadership styles come in different guises. Tyrants wield power and make decisions without opposition. CEOs may delegate, while others micro-manage it. Weak helmsmen fear initiative and creativity. When a political leader shows an inability or unwillingness to limit self-absorption, self-admiration, and self-praise, his style is narcissistic. He abuses his office through unyielding arrogance and an egotism that seeks power for its own sake. His drive for prestige in addition to his drive for power over others will ultimately bring him down, especially if this selfish vision overshadows the pressing needs of his country and its people. Instead of using his power with people to unite, he divides, pitting one group against another hoping to exercise power over them.
The collaborative or democratic style of leadership engages as many viewpoints as possible in contributing to a final decision. Lincoln chose this form of leadership, as Doris Kearns Goodwin reveals in A Team of Rivals.
Winston Churchill is still considered the greatest leader of the twentieth century. On becoming Prime Minister of Britain in 1940 during World War II, he spoke of hardship: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” It was not what his fellow countrymen wanted to hear; it was what they needed to hear. Who of us is not familiar with his “Finest Hour” speech: “Let us bear ourselves, so that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” And who can forget his praise of his Air Force: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Churchill exercised his power with purpose and principle.
Margaret Thatcher possessed an assertive self-confidence that engaged in pragmatism but was bolstered by a strong Presbyterian ethic. Her direct and charismatic leadership style won for her the title, “The Iron Lady.” And what of Aung San Sui Kyi, the Burmese dissident politician, who led a non-violent resistance against the Burmese repressive military regime? In 1991, she received the Nobel Peace Prize.
In September 2001, Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York City, with enormous presence of mind, exercised extraordinary leadership over a city that had been besieged by terror. He later remarked that his father had wisely counseled: “When others are overcome by fear, remain calm.” These leaders fawned over no one. Neither did they pander to popular opinion. Although their leadership carried with it enormous power, theirs was not a power over people but rather an authority with people. Still, governments do not elect saints.
The Pope’s Leadership Style
Everyone has a theory about the Pope’s leadership style. Less than one year into his papacy, virtually everyone seems to be putting a label on him. He’s too liberal. He’s too humble, too abstemious, too optimistic. He’s an iconoclast, a compulsive worker. If, in the future, he shows himself as a gourmet cook, which he is, will that also surprise us?
The Pope’s leadership style is still evolving. The College of Cardinals gave him a broad mandate, the full extent of which we do not yet know. But there are intimations of his direction: Unless we let the light under the bushel basket be visible to all, our faith will be dismissed as irrelevant.
Francis may be the CEO of a world organization, yet he serves it. He may be the political leader of the world’s smallest state, yet he does politics by not practicing it. The vigil of a few weeks ago during the Syrian crisis was his way of leading the Church in a day-long prayer even as he decried the violence. Broadly educated in humanism, he speaks with ease to everyone regardless of rank or status. Yes, he stands on the stage as a media star, but he plays it down.
Pope Francis, the Jesuit
Francis, a son of St. Ignatius, is a man of action, but not as the head of an NGO. He sees God in created things, and he sees them in God. He prays for the sake of his ministry, and his ministry is done for the sake of prayer. God is present and at work in the universe so that nothing is merely secular or profane. Francis is at home in the world. This is Ignatian.
The Ignatian way is to be on the move in the thicket of human pursuits; it is a restless way, restless for the Magis, the More. It is always eager to effect change for God’s greater honor and glory (ad maiorem Dei gloriam). The Ignatian person journeys on a road that never quite arrives. Three questions are asked along the trek up the road: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What should I do for Christ? It is not Ignatian to do nothing. This Pope is on the move.
As a well-chiseled personality, Francis has a keen awareness of self. He knows who he is – gifts and limitations (he confesses his inability to sing). This self-knowledge likely stems from doing to the daily examen, a key aspect of the Ignatian vision.
He told a confrere that he does not make decisions on the spur of the moment. Every decision that will have consequences must be tested. Discernment – that process of weighing the good and the bad, the grey and the less gray in terms of a greater or lesser faith commitment – this is how he makes decisions. Here his commitment to avoid the trappings of pomp, power, prestige, and status comes into play.
“The manner is ordinary” – simply Catholic – neither to the right nor to the left, but in the middle of the road – in medias res. And this way can surprise.
Didn’t Jesus surprise the Twelve when he spoke to the Samaritan woman in gentle if not familiar terms? Didn’t Jesus surprise them when he told Simon to his face that his feelings were hurt? What of Jesus’ remark of nine lepers who didn’t say ‘thank you?’ And what did Peter think and feel when the Master told him off: “Get behind me, Satan?” Was Jesus a liberal or a conservative? Wasn’t he both? He centered his teaching on what pleased his Father. Wholeness was the goal: “I have come that they may have life, life to the full,” he assured his listeners (Jn 10:10). Our faith must be a full and complete faith – not simply a belief in creed and not simply an agency that does good. We are a Church that must sing beautifully together as a unity. We cannot be a Church that creates dissonance or who scolds like the mythological Harpies. What we see in Pope Francis is “mere Christianity” – but a papacy in a new key.
We live in a time when transition is very intense. It is a time between winter and spring when the earth is bare and the plants are seemingly dead, yet underneath everything is tense with energy. This is our time, but God is in charge as the verse proclaims: “Sion, sing, break into song! For within you is the Lord with his saving power.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.