The Leadership Style of Pope Francis

This week I’ve been slowly, deliberately reading Chris Lowney’s most excellent new book, Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads  (Loyola Press, 2013). 

Lowney, author of the best-selling book Heroic Leadership, is eminently qualified to assess our dynamic new Pope’s leadership style.  As a former Jesuit seminarian, he understands St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises and their emphasis upon humility and service.   As a businessman who has served as a managing director for J. P. Morgan on three continents, and as board chair of one of the nation’s largest healthcare systems, he understands the menu of leadership styles from which leaders, even religious leaders, must choose.


At the offset, Lowney acknowledges the great paradox of a Jesuit pope.  St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, detested overweening personal ambition, which he called “the mother of all evils in any community or congregation.”  He instructed his Jesuits, first, to aspire to no high office in the Church and second, “to expose anyone whom they observe trying to obtain” a higher office.  Imagine, Lowney notes, if everyone in corporate America had to report ambitious colleagues?  The sheer volume of reporting would allow no time to get any work done.

And Jorge Bergoglio has absorbed the lesson of humility from his spiritual father Ignatius.  After emerging as the runner-up in the 2005 papal conclave, he didn’t remain in Rome, building his network and credentials for the next election.  Instead, he quickly flew home to Argentina to tend to his flock, most especially the poor.

So once elected to the papacy, Pope Francis quickly set about changing the way things are done—and instilling his own Jesuit humility atop the pomp and circumstance of Vatican tradition.  Within minutes of his election to the papacy, he dispensed with tradition by refusing the traditional red cape (mozzetta) and keeping his own simple iron pectoral cross; placing his own phone calls; and hopping onto a bus instead of the papal limo.  Within a few days, he announced that “authentic power is service.”  He has shown, Lowney notes, an unwavering commitment to igniting massive culture change across his Church.

Lowney talked with Fr. Alejandro Gauffin, a Jesuit priest who studied under Father Bergoglio a quarter century ago.  Father Gauffin, watching the first few days of Pope Francis’ papacy, said,

“Everything I see from the new Pope now, everything I hear now…I saw then, and I heard then….  It is like reliving our days together in the parish, when he taught me that gestures were worth much more than words.”


Chris Lowney

Shortly before his ordination to the priesthood, Lowney reports, Bergoglio wrote out a brief credo, a personal creed.  He has kept the folded paper for nearly four decades.  Not a theologically precise creed as one would recite in church, Bergoglio’s credo is deeply personal.  Writing at thirty-two, Bergoglio began:

First, I am flawed.  He sees himself as a sinner, who “seeks to take in without giving…without giving.”

Second, he wrote, I am a good and gifted person.  Despite his acknowledgment of his human frailty, there is no self-loathing or despair.  His and self-acceptance draws on the love he feels from God:  “I believe in God’s patience, welcoming, good like a summer night…  I believe in Mary, my mother, who loves me and will never forget me.”  And basking in this felt love, he brings his gifts to the world: “I believe in wanting to love much…. I believe that others are good and that I ought to love them without fear, never betraying them in order to seek my own security.”

Third, I am called to offer my gifts, to play a unique role, to lead.  The young Bergoglio, in acknowledging his call, cites a single day, September 21, on which his life changed.  Lowney recounts the story:

On his way to a picnic with friends, including a woman to whom he was quite attracted, he stopped in a church, happened to make a confession to a priest he had never met before, and was so deeply moved that he resolved that morning to change his life path completely.  He would abandon plans to become a pharmacy technician or a doctor and instead, a few years later, enter a seminary.  He walked out of the church and headed home, leaving his friends waiting at the train station.  His creed recalls that moment:  “I believe in my own life history, which was pierced by God’s look of love, and…leading me to an encounter in order to invite me to follow him.”


Lowney lists six commitments of the new leader, which appear on the surface to contradict one another, but which are foundational to Francis’ papacy:

1-2   Know yourself deeply, but live to serve others.  Francis’ long, intense Jesuit formation focused on the Spiritual Exercises continues to influence his decisions.

3-4   Immerse yourself in the world, but withdraw from the world daily.  “Unless we train ministers capable of warming people’s hearts,” said Pope Francis in his address to Brazilian bishops on July 27, 2013, “of walking with them in the night, of dialoguing with their hopes and disappointments, of mending their brokenness, what hope can we have for our present and future journey?”

But despite the busyness of his job, Pope Francis continues to make prayer the center of his life.  Lowney explains that a leader, on his first day in his new office, should meet with the people who are most important in his work—his key lieutenants, department heads, advisors.  Pope Francis, on his first day as Pope, did the same thing, spending time with the person to whom he has devoted his papacy:  He made his first visit as pope to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, praying in solitary silence to Mary, the Mother of God and our Mother.

5-6   Live in the present and revere tradition, but create the future.  Balancing the triptych of past, present and future is difficult in any business, notes Lowney, but incredibly so in Pope Francis’s “business.”

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio must have ordained hundreds of deacons through the years.  During the ordination ceremony, as they knelt before him, Archbishop Bergoglio placed the gospel book in each one’s hands and recited a simple prayer, encouraging the new deacon to:  “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”   Lowney knows from experience that the moral leadership required of deacons—and of business leaders—is difficult, and yet it is the course which Pope Francis must take.

Lowney noted that Pope Francis, from the perspective of hunkered-down progressives and that of traditionalists, has already seemed to be standing for one thing or another.  But be careful, he warns.  Michael Gerson, The Washington Post columnist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is quoted as saying, of the Holy Father, the “media have struggled to find and apply a simple ideological label” for Pope Francis.

“Sometimes he sounds like a Latin American lefty, calling for ‘social justice’ and criticizing ‘selfish profit.’  Sometimes he is defiantly un-modern on matters sexual.”

But what’s really going on, Gerson understood, is that the pope is trying to orient us toward a sense of vision that “transcends our ideological debates and challenges all sides of them.”

In a nationally televised mass the day after his election, in his homily of March 14, 2013, Pope Francis spoke these words to fellow cardinals:  “Our life is a journey, and when we stop moving, things go wrong.”

Lowney ends his profound meditation on this new and different Pope with the closing lines of Bergoglio’s credo:  “I look forward to the surprise of each day…..  My hope in God is in the journey, and in the quest, in allowing myself to search.”

 *     *     *     *     *

Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads is a selection of the Patheos Book Club.  For more information about the book, about the author, or to read an excerpt, go to the dedicated page at the Patheos Book Club.


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  • jenny

    Nice !!! interesting to learn about his credo…