You could spend a lot of money learning about leadership at a top business school. Or you could simply observe Pope Francis.
Last year Professor Emeritus James L Heskett of Harvard Business School, wrote a blog post about ‘servant leadership’ (hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7207.html), ‘an age-old concept, a term loosely used to suggest that a leader’s primary role is to serve others, especially employees.’
He writes about seeing the idea in action during a board meeting, when the chief executive spilled a cup of coffee:
‘Instead of summoning someone to clean it up, he asked a colleague to get him cleaning compound and a cloth. Whereupon he proceeded to get down on his hands and knees to clean up the spill himself.
The remarkable thing was that board members and employees alike hardly noticed as he did it. It was as if it was expected in a company with self-proclaimed servant leadership.’
Just two weeks after his election last year, Pope Francis showed his approach to leadership during the Holy Thursday rite.
Breaking with tradition, he chose to wash the feet of 14 young people, including two women, at a youth detention facility in Rome.
‘This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service,’ he told them. ‘Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us.’
Francis has quickly become renowned for audaciously humble acts: travelling by bus, living in a Vatican hostel, inviting a group of homeless men to share his birthday meal, embracing a child who ran on stage during the Year-of-Faith celebrations.
It is, perhaps, too easy to read into many of these actions a theological or organisational agenda, as if they are part of a preconceived master plan. In one sense, they should simply be seen as natural, instinctive actions that reveal the character of the man.
But they are also hugely symbolic, because he must know that a Pope’s actions are always analysed closely, as much as his words.
And those words: ‘Who am I to judge?’; ‘I want things messy and stirred up in the congregations’; ‘This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas.’
I think this Pope’s style is to talk with us, rather than at us. He is always inverting authority, embracing complex questions over easy answers, throwing the choices back to us.
He reminds us we, individually and collectively, are the Church and its present and future is our responsibility as much as his.
So yes, Professor Heskett, servant seadership is an ‘age-old concept’. As old as the Bible, in fact.
Matthew Jansen is a strategic consultant and a trustee on the Board of St Catherine’s College, Wellington.