Pope Francis shows how success can follow humility, author says

February 26, 2014 

Jorge Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, was widely considered to be the runner-up in 2005 when Pope Benedict XVI was elected to lead the Catholic Church.

But he didn’t hang around the Vatican and plot a political strategy that would eventually lead to his becoming Benedict’s successor.

Instead, the future Pope Francis quietly returned to his ministry on the streets of Argentina and then emerged as somewhat of a surprise pick last March after Benedict’s retirement. To Chris Lowney, that’s a stroke of leadership worthy of a case study.

“He went totally off the radar. … That to me was totally compelling,” said the author of “Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads,” which was published last year by Loyola Press. A former manager for global financial giant JPMorgan & Co. and a former Jesuit seminarian, Lowney is convinced the popular pontiff’s leadership style is rooted in his training as a Jesuit.

With its focus on self-awareness and service to others, Lowney believes, the Jesuits’ philosophy could easily translate as a model for leaders ranging from Fortune 100 executives to community organizers.

“Obviously he’s not a self-promoter,” Lowney said of the first South American and first Jesuit priest to become pope. “He went back to Buenos Aires and worked with poor people.”

The Jesuits’ basic teachings — including self-reflection and the ability to focus on causes other than self — are principles frequently absent in modern leaders, Lowney said in a phone interview.

“Usually you get into big organizations and leaders tend to be a little political, ruthless and cutthroat. In organizations that perform well, they have the opposite feeling: People feel somewhat supported in their work.”

Like the pope, Lowney, 55, was immersed in the Jesuit culture for years. A son of Irish immigrants raised in the Queens borough of New York City, he attended a Jesuit high school in Manhattan, then joined the religious order at age 18. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Fordham University, a Jesuit college in the Bronx, and taught English and economics at Fordham Preparatory.

By 1983, however, he realized the priesthood was not his calling. He applied for training programs at large banks in New York and went shopping for a business suit.

“Jesuits have a vow of poverty so I didn’t have much of anything” to wear to interviews, he recalled.

After landing at JPMorgan, he worked for about eight years in investment banking, then was assigned as a manager to the company’s offices in London, Singapore and Tokyo. He left the bank after 17 years.

“I had a deal with myself. I didn’t want to be 70 years old and the only thing I did was work at JPMorgan. … I wanted to do something more tangible to give back.”

With significant savings from his banking job and no spouse or children to support at the time — he has since become engaged and plans to marry this summer — Lowney was confident he could survive comfortably as a writer. His years of living frugally as a priest-in-training helped him control spending. “When I started in seminary, my allowance was $5 a week.”

His first book, “Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World,” chronicled the teachings of the Jesuit order founded as the Society of Jesus by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier who experienced a religious conversion after being wounded in battle.

The order’s guiding principles, according to Lowney, can be described as self-awareness, ingenuity, heroism and love.

“Self-awareness is the need to know your own strengths, weaknesses and values. Ingenuity, in a world that keeps changing, is to be free enough to change (yourself) so that you can lead well. Heroism is not so much the things that make you famous … it’s caring about causes that are greater than self. Love is really caring about the people on your team and trying to develop their potential.”

Bill O’Rourke, executive director of the Beard Institute at the Palumbo Donahue School of Business at Duquesne University, agreed that Pope Francis’ exposure to the Jesuits informed his leadership style. “They aren’t pompous. They understand real life,” said O’Rourke, who was taught by Jesuits at John Carroll University in Cleveland, where he earned an undergraduate degree in business.

Pope Francis offers enlightened leadership that is “not just value, but virtue-based … linked with a touch of humility,” said the former lawyer and manager at Alcoa for more than three decades.

WHAT HUMILITY BRINGS

By eschewing lavish papal traditions such as the custom-made red shoes and by opting to live in a modest Vatican guesthouse rather than the papal residence overlooking St. Peter’s Square, Francis has created an image that makes him relate to the people, said O’Rourke.

Humble leaders can bring success to their organizations, said a study published in 2012 in the Academy of Management Journal, because they are perceived as more genuine and more in touch with those they lead.

The study, conducted by researchers at the State University of New York-Buffalo and the University of Colorado-Boulder, was based on interviews with 55 leaders in diverse fields including mortgage banking, health care, the military and religious organizations.

Lowney didn’t plan to write a book about Pope Francis. After the papal election, Loyola Press, a Chicago-based company that published “Heroic Leadership,” asked him to turn out something quickly about the new pontiff.

“The broader point I tried to make is that everybody feels they will get a big leadership job and then sit down and figure out their leadership style. That’s nonsense. All the preparation comes before you get the job. Obviously this guy was elected and wasn’t planning on being pope. They sort of pushed him onto the balcony (of St. Peter’s Basilica) and said, ‘Go ahead.’”

Joyce Gannon writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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