One of the important pieces of advice I give to leaders taking on challenges with a new group or in a new context is to make sure to embody their stories. Nothing undermines the credibility of a new leader more than a perception that he is not authentic, that he tells one story and lives another one.
People often ask me about the dangers and pitfalls for the storytelling leader. My most common answer is that the number one trap is the temptation to tell stories that are overly embellished, or that paint pictures that somehow do not ring true with listeners. To the followers, one’s story must be reality, not rhetoric. As Socrates said: “The first key to greatness is to be in reality what we appear to be.”
We should not only tell true and authentic stories, we should also only tell the stories we can truly and visibly live. It is better to tell no stories at all than to tell ones that you do not embody in your daily behavior.
To this point, Pope Francis gets excellent grades for embodying the story both he and the Church seem to be telling about their vision for the future. According to reports in the Buenos Aires’ daily newspapers, the College of Cardinals chose this pope because of several characteristics they saw as important in their new leader, attributes that Francis has embodied consistently throughout his entire life. Let’s examine a few of the elements the cardinals considered important in making their choice.
First of all, the cardinals wanted a pope who could make a clean break with the arrogance and distance of the past. So they chose someone who dresses simply, with none of the standard papal regalia or finery. When he addresses the crowd from his balcony, there are no grand gestures. Reporters on the scene describe him as shy, unassuming, even self-effacing.
In fact, this pope does not see himself as superior or special in any way. Before he was named as the Church’s leader, he had scheduled his retirement for the end of 2013, planning to live in a spartan room with no air conditioning, with a converted storeroom as his study.
They wanted a “barefoot pope” who could connect with the worlds most impoverished. By all accounts, Pope Francis has long preached his deep love and respect for the poor, and he lived his words completely throughout his career. In his homeland, stories abound about his unpretentious lifestyle and his rejection of Church pomposity. When he held the Church’s highest office in Argentina, he gave the cardinal’s palace in Buenos Aires to a struggling missionary order with no money. He lived in an apartment, cooked his own food, and rode the bus among the people.
Since his recent move to the Vatican, Francis’ style has already had a palpable effect. In contrast to his more remote and academic predecessor, the new pope’s unpretentious and welcoming nature is drawing vast crowds of admirers to Saint Peter’s square, rekindling interest in a Church that had been perceived as out of touch with its more than 1 billion faithful worldwide.
The cardinals also sought a pope who could begin to change byzantine the ways of Church politics. In naming him, they signaled that they wanted another type of management, an end to decades of infighting. What they hoped for was a pope who could align the various factions and bring unity, based on mutual respect and dialogue.
Since the very first hours of his papacy, Francis seemed to be showing the Church and the Vatican another way to be. Here was a man who rejected traditional authoritarian leadership styles, who spoke simply, who listened intently to cardinals and bishops, and who talked of his desire to serve rather than rule. And, his trip to Brazil in July met with quasi unanimous approval, aligning all Church constituents in an atmosphere of enthusiastic celebration.
Despite this initial support, Pope Francis concedes that he has his work cut out as he prepares to tackle the interest groups that dominate the Vatican, including a powerful gay lobby. His biggest opposition is thought to come from traditionalists who consider this Latin American a usurper from outside the Vatican’s inner circle.
In his typical fashion, the pope addressed this central issue head on, stating that “the Church must not be scared of renovating the old structures”. In his early days, he even evoked the option of closing the famed Institute for Religious Works, popularly known as the Vatican bank, which has been mired in scandal. “Whatever the solution” he said in an impromptu news conference in Brazil, “it must have transparency and honesty.”
Transparency, honesty, simplicity: such is the story he tells, and such are the values he has embodied throughout an entire life of serving poor and downtrodden. Among those who have known the pope for many years is my cousin Horacio Rozanski, who handles the Vatican’s legal affairs in Argentina. In his view, Pope Francis is truly a great man by the criteria of Socrates, one who is in reality exactly what he appears to be.