What Pope Francis’ U.S. stop say about his leadership style

Pope Francis Leads Way Of The Cross On Rio's Copacabana Beach
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 26: Pope Francis waves from the Popemobile on his way to attend the Via Crucis on Copacabana Beach during World Youth Day celebrations on July 26, 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More than 1.5 million pilgrims are expected to join the pontiff for his visit to the Catholic Church's World Youth Day celebrations which is running July 23-28. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Photograph by Buda Mendes — Getty Images

Pope Francis’ arrival to America today is generating a level of energy and excitement that has everybody talking. What will he say? Who will he challenge? What will be the impact of his visit to America? Some of these questions may be answered right away, as he will be giving speeches in Washington, DC to Congress, and at the United Nations in New York City. Each of those stops reflects his leadership goals of challenging those in power to work for peace and creating more humane policies and structures to serve those most in need.

But answers to the impact of his visit will take much longer. For, over the past two years, the leadership of Pope Francis has not been the person who provides quick and easy solutions to the world’s problems (e.g., the environment, poverty, immigration and migration, peace); rather, reflecting Jesuit training, his leadership has been one of promoting dialogue among those who have different viewpoints or interests, and then collectively discerning better solutions for our global problems. His leadership has been one of acting as a catalyst for change through his words (Laudato Si, his encyclical on the environment) and his actions (intermediary in US and Cuba relations, which he worked on during his visit to Cuba). This type of leadership, which reflects both moral awareness and political savvy, will be on full display when he comes to America.

More: How Pope Francis’ U.S. visit is impacting tech companies

His humanity, or his ability to connect to people authentically and emotionally, will be on display the moment he gets off the plane in America. It begins first with his smile, an infectious smile, one which touches and engages people. But his desire to connect on a human level will be found in his stops in Washington, DC (visiting the poor and homeless during lunch), in New York City (visiting a school in East Harlem), and in Philadelphia (visiting inmates in a prison). These visits are about connecting with people on a human level, wanting to hear their stories about their situations and their struggles. These visits also signal his priorities, bringing attention to the issues that are central to his leadership agenda.


But the one aspect of his leadership that will be critical for him to engage and mobilize people for action will be the hope that his words and actions inspire. Rather than hearing words that focus on blame and shame to motivate change, you will more likely hear words of courage and mercy. The language of Pope Francis’s leadership focuses on the positives and possibilities to motivate people to connect, collaborate, and commit to change, to make the world a more humane and just place.

As one who is leading change, both within the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has been labeled by some as a “revolutionary,” even a radical, one who is straying from centuries of well-established doctrine. Such a characterization of the leadership of Pope Francis is misleading and untrue. It is true that he is calling for a revolution, but it is not a revolution of doctrine, but a “revolution of the heart.” If you listen to him intently, and observe his actions closely, his leadership is challenging people to look inward, to open their hearts and minds to those who are vulnerable and on the margins of society—and then focus outward and serve those most in need.

The leadership of Pope Francis will be on full display during his visit to America. But the irony of his so-called first visit to America is that he is a person of the Americas—Argentina and South America. It is his experiences in Argentina, along with his Jesuit training, that have been the formative influences on his leadership, not the past two years in Europe. Look for those influences on display in Washington, DC, New York City and Philadelphia.

Robert J. Bies is a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

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