Lead Like a Pope

“Service is the rent we pay for living on this earth.” – Reverend Dr. Denison Harrield, Jr., Pastor, Wallace Chapel AME Zion Church, Summit, NJ

Pope Francis blesses faithfulAnd so these words poured forth last week during a breakfast meeting held by the Morris Habitat for Humanity chapter in NJ. I was in attendance through the invitation of a dear friend, Peter Wentworth. It was the first time I had ever attended a Habitat event. My charitable zeal veers toward healthcare and literacy but the good reverend’s words did more than just add another cause to my list of interests. He reminded me how lucky I am to live a life where I can take so many basics for granted: regular meals, a family home, intellectual prowess, long-term economic stability. Whether I admit it or not, I am a privileged by virtue of the fact that I am free to occupy my time with things other than survival.

The theme of service as rent was in equal display, at the same time, in Pope Francis I’s visit to America. Like many, I tuned in to watch his tour as often as I could. His strength, compassion and humility were simply astounding. Caring little for self-aggrandizement, he walked the path like a prophet; blessing the disabled, welcoming children, speaking hard truths without fear, manifesting compassion and love. His stance was honest and without ego.

He challenged a nation with so many blessings to share those blessings more joyfully. He reminded those in health to care for the sick. He instructed those who lead to do so humbly. He made it clear that one does not lead institutions or organizations or traditions. One leads people.

Pope Francis and the Reverend Dr. Harrield raise a bold and fundamental question for all leaders: What are you leading, things or people?

I am constantly challenged in my work with leaders to keep sight of this question. When I coach, am I helping a leader become more aware of her power and impact on others, or the power and impact others have on her? When I help a leader manage large-scale change, am I advising him holistically on the optimal use of story and strategic intervention to foster positive outcomes for all? In the end, am I helping leaders lead things or lead people?

Leading people, not things, is the embodiment of the age-old distinction between leaders and managers. As Warren Bennis noted in his groundbreaking 1989 book, On Becoming a Leader, a manager is focused on administering and maintaining the operation – in other words, the manager is focused on things. The leader, by contrast, is focused on influence, engagement and innovation – in other words, the leader is focused on people.

In my view, we use the term “leader” rather carelessly. Anyone with a certain title or pay grade is a leader. This is false. Leading is vocation and privilege, not a line on an org chart. It’s the keystone challenge of a lifetime, not the result of a carefully hewed path.

I would be derelict in my work if I did not set the right example, if I counseled leaders to be more concerned with impersonal victory over long-term, human benefit. It’s easy to confuse the two and at times I have. But I know I am not doing my best work when I lose sight of who is ultimately impacted by my effort. It is a lesson I intentionally re-learn everyday, a reminder that the best work is useful work.

To lead well, lead the people. To lead humbly, lead in service. To lead best, lead like a pope.




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