The choice of papal names often communicates something important about the man just elected pope. In 1903, Pope St. Pius X signaled his desire to continue the confrontation with modernity begun by Blessed Pius IX during the 19th century.
Similarly, Pope St. John Paul II (following John Paul I) indicated his embrace of the reforms initiated by St. John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI in the Second Vatican Council.
When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose the name Francis, he too was sending a message to the world. Like St. Francis of Assisi some 800 years earlier, Pope Francis was saying that his leadership style would be based on personal humility and his agenda built around solidarity with the poor. The near-universal love expressed for both the Pope and the saint shows the perennial appeal of this message. These two “Francises” have valuable lessons for leaders.
First, they show the immense power that comes from rejecting the trappings of power. Saint Francis famously stripped naked publicly to renounce all claims to his father’s wealth and social status, becoming a beggar in the process. When Pope Francis first stepped out onto the balcony after his election, he wore only a simple white cassock and black leather shoes, rejecting the fur cape and red slippers traditionally worn by new popes. These were decisive moments in establishing their leadership style and moral authority.
In both instances, the message was clear: True authority comes not from ceremonies, titles and fine clothing, but from humility and authenticity. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with expensive suits and spacious offices; they have a legitimate place in most corporate cultures. Nevertheless, both Francises remind us that these things are only symbols of leadership, not substitutes for it. The greatest courage we can show as leaders is to step out from behind the perks and titles that come with our offices. When they are surrendered (if only temporarily), the leader behind the title is revealed, for better or for worse.
Second, both men not only declared their solidarity with the poor but actually demonstrated it. The Holy Father chose the name Francis when, during the final ballot his election had become inevitable, a fellow cardinal whispered to him, “Don’t forget the poor!” Spending his first Holy Thursday washing the feet of prisoners and non-Catholics rather than dignitaries, Pope Francis made good his promise. Likewise, after his conversion, St. Francis sought out the poor and sick, ministering to those who had nothing to offer in return. In effect, the new CEO made his first stop not in the boardroom but in the mailroom.
By doing so, these men — in modern language — transformed and humanized the “corporate culture” of the Church. Their example challenges every leader to ask, “Who are the poor in my company?” and “How am I serving and honoring them?” Every company, even the most successful, has its “poor” — those without organizational power, social status or economic security. Of course, hard decisions will always have to be made about hiring, firing and compensation. Not even popes and saints can avoid making them. However, a faithful Catholic leader will always remember that these decisions are always about human beings deserving of our love and concern.
Finally, both men recognize the absolute necessity of integrity for any leader. Toward the end of his life, St. Francis met a peasant who offered him a ride. During the trip, the man asked, “Are you the Francis about whom everyone is talking?” When he replied that he was, the peasant told him, “Well, make sure you are as good as people say you are, because they have put their trust in you. Don’t do anything to destroy their faith and hope!” Saint Francis responded by kissing the man’s feet.
Every leader — from Supreme Pontiff to shift manager — needs to hear the same warning on a regular basis. Hypocrisy is a great threat to any leader’s authority. But such behavior is usually the result of deceiving ourselves rather than seeking to deceive others; we simply don’t know our own weaknesses and limitations and confuse our true selves with the image we present to others.
However, once I summon the courage to see myself as I truly am, flaws and all, I am then able to see my coworkers as God sees them, flaws and all. Then, and only then, can I recognize their unique value and equal dignity as individuals. Humility leads to authenticity, which in turn leads to solidarity. Only when we possess all three can we call ourselves leaders in the spirit of Francis. Not a bad goal for any leader.
LANCE RICHEY, PH.D., is an associate professor of theology and director of the John Duns Scotus Honors Program at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.