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The Pope’s message on the diseases of leadership

Jul 12, 2015 Sunday Nation

Pope Francis is proving to be refreshingly different. He is giving his own office a good shakeout, shedding it of static doctrine. He also has wise things to say on a wide range of issues.

Recently, he gave an address to the Roman Curia, and focused on the challenge of leadership. That caught my eye. Management thinker Gary Hamel subsequently provided a helpful interpretation of that talk on the “diseases of leadership” on hbr.org. I found that many of the diseases identified by Pope Francis are rampant in leadership around these parts. Allow me some space this Sunday and next to discuss some of them. I will begin this week with the diseases of the ego.

First, the Pope focused on the disease of the myth of indispensability. That is certainly a common one around here: Big Men leaders who strut around imagining every good thing that happens is caused single-handedly by them, and no bad thing is their fault. Stay humble, people. We are all utterly dispensable, and we will all bite the dust someday. As Pope Francis pointed out, we lead in order to serve our followers; we don’t lead in order to lord it over them. When we do, we display self-delusion.

Related to this is the disease of petrification. This happens when we lose our essential humanity and develop hearts of stone, detaching ourselves from the consequences of our actions on our followers. This is very common: leaders hanging on to power even if it means many deaths and much destruction; or chief executives causing the disastrous decline of their corporations, resulting in the loss of livelihoods to thousands, with barely a blush of shame.

Linked to petrification is the disease of indifference. This, according to Pope Francis, is the loss of the sincerity and warmth of genuine human relationships. Something seems to happen to people who spend too much time in the upper echelons. They stop giving a damn, and start faking their interactions. Many CEOs and politicians suffer from this malaise; they are unable to have a sincere conversation. You can tell from the forced smiles and the fake bonhomie and shifting eyes; they pretend to care, because they think the world wants them to. But genuine concern vaporised a long time ago.

Because many leaders don’t have any genuine attachment to their people, they also fall into the disease of closed circles. This is when mistrust makes them rely on small “kitchen cabinets” or “boards within boards.” When the connection with followers is tenuous, we are forced to rely on cliques of insiders and cronies to tell us the lay of the land and carry out our directives. Eventually, counter-cliques form and the kingdom divides, leading to strife and discord.

Then there is the disease of hoarding. This refers to the senseless amassing of material reward: grand offices, palatial homes, convoys of vehicles, bigger and bigger pay packages. We must learn to be very wary of those who hoard; they come to enrich themselves, not the populace. This leader “tries to fill an existential void in his or her heart by accumulating material goods, not out of need but only in order to feel secure.” Study the history of humankind: nowhere have self-focused hoarders brought any sustained prosperity to their people.

Lastly this week: Pope Francis’s final disease of leadership: the disease of self-exhibition. These are the leaders who are perpetually putting themselves on display: paying to be adored in the media; surrounding themselves with acolytes who spin the story of their glory; taking every opportunity to tell the world the much-embellished tale of how they overcame exceptional personal hardship to get to the top.

Those then, are the Pope’s beautifully captured diseases of leadership. The ones I focused on this week all related to the ailments of the ego and the heart. Next week we will move on to the diseases that manifest themselves in how leaders do their work. See you here, same time.

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