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Real leadership begins with one’s self

  • Published Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, at 12 a.m.

America has an ample number of leaders, in the workplace and in politics. But unfortunately, what many of these leaders are actually doing is “leadIng.”

You'll note the capital “I.” That’s not a typo.

We have politicians who don’t so much govern as self-promote, grandstanding for future fundraisers with little thought of making the world a better place. And we have bosses and managers leading as a means to get ahead, ignoring the importance of the people they purport to lead.

LeadIng is quite different from leading. For more on that, let’s turn to a new high-profile leader who is making the “i” in leading nearly invisible.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as the 266th pope of the Catholic Church in March – taking the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi – he immediately showed the world his leadership style would be different from that of his predecessors.

He said no to the fancy red loafers favored by Pope Benedict XVI, opting for simple black shoes. He declined the papal limo for a bus ride. For living quarters, he chose the Vatican guesthouse over an apartment in the Apostolic Palace.

Author Chris Lowney has observed the behavior of the first Jesuit pope and used him as a case study in effective leadership. In his new book, “Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads,” Lowney writes of Francis’ first days as pope: “We were not watching someone trying to act like a pope. We were watching a person unafraid to be who he was.”

And from that, Lowney draws this spot-on conclusion: “Be comfortable in your own skin. Know who you are, the good and the bad. And find the courage not just to be yourself, but to be the best version of yourself. These are the foundations of self-leadership, and all leadership starts with self-leadership because you can’t lead the rest of us if you can’t lead yourself.”

I asked Lowney about the artifice that often masquerades as leadership.

“I’d say we’re kind of plagued with managers who feel like fakes a lot of the time,” he said. “You think, ‘This guy is putting on an act here and trying to lead us.’ And you feel like this person doesn’t have his own thing figured out. Or you feel like this person is in it for themselves. Powerful leadership is where you get the impression that this person knows who he or she is, they’ve thought deeply about it, and this person is willing to sacrifice for some project or mission.”

If you look at various surveys about how much we trust our leaders – both in business and in politics – the results are abysmal. Part of the problem, Lowney posits, is that we’re victims of a “leadership industry” in which people believe workshops and advice books are all it takes to excel at managing.

“The culture is such that everything has to be digestible in five easy tricks,” Lowney said. “We can encapsulate important ideas in a very simple way, but I think getting to be that person requires hard work. To imply that I’m going to take an airplane ride and digest a few tricks and be a better leader is just absurd.”

A former Jesuit seminarian who went on to a long career in corporate America, Lowney highlights the Jesuits’ years-long training, much of which revolves around self-examination and working among the people they seek to lead. It’s “dirty-footed leadership” with a focus on understanding other people and their circumstances and putting their needs ahead of one’s own.

Of course, an aspiring manager isn’t going to follow the path of a Jesuit priest. But there’s something to be borrowed from this approach, a way of focusing people on the greater good earlier in their careers so they might embrace that attitude.

“We never think about investing in anything like this,” Lowney said. “Our perception is, ‘We’re going to equip you with technical skills, and then boom, you do your job.’ Only when people were well down the road and starting to come into very senior positions might we say, ‘Well, we need to give this person a coach.’ The things they should have figured out about themselves when they were younger and more malleable, we never thought to tell them about.”

Again, the issue here is not one of religion or faith, but of encouraging people to look outside themselves. I would argue that’s the right thing to do on a moral basis, but in the workplace, it’s also the right thing to do pragmatically.

You will be a more effective leader if you place your own self-interests aside. People will work harder for you. Loyalty will increase. You don’t need an academic study to prove that – just think of the bosses, coaches, even parents, who have led you and helped you reach a better place.

In the book, Lowney distills Pope Francis’ leadership principles like this: “Commit to yourself deeply, including your frailties, and come to some peaceful acceptance of yourself and your calling to lead. Then, commit to ‘get over yourself' to serve a purpose greater than self.”

He recognizes these might be lofty expectations for those of us who aren’t the pope.

“My unrealistic hope would be that this – or something, or anything, or maybe this pope – might help to catalyze a much wider conversation about what good leadership looks like. That maybe we’d be more willing to call out politicians and businesspeople who are self-absorbed in ways that we just see are not helping us meet our broader goals.”

Amen.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at rhuppke@tribune.com

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