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Waiting for Pope Francis, champion of the poor

“Lombardi had served as the spokesman for (pope) Benedict, formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, a man of Germanic precision. After meeting with a world leader, the former pope would emerge and rattle off an incisive summation, Lombardi tells me, with palpable wistfulness: “It was incredible. Benedict was so clear. He would say: ‘We have spoken about these things, I agree with these points, I would argue against these other points, the objective of our next meeting will be this’ – two minutes and I’m totally clear about what the contents were. With Francis – ‘This is a wise man; he has had these interesting experiences.’” Chuckling somewhat helplessly, Lombardi adds, “Diplomacy for Francis is not so much about strategy but instead, ‘I have met this person, we now have a personal relation, let us now do good for the people and for the church.’””

The excerpt above is from a fascinating portrait of Pope Francis by Robert Draper in the August 2015 issue of National Geographic. Draper is talking to Father Federico Lombardi, a long-standing Vatican communications officer who has experienced both the recent popes: the ‘Latino’ Francis from Argentina, as well as the ‘Germanic’ Benedict.

Which of the two leadership styles highlighted is the superior one? Lombardi evidently misses the clarity provided by his former boss, and seems a little lost by the more vague relationship-based style of the current officeholder. As a long-time student of leadership, however, I want to tell you this: neither style is better than the other. It all depends.

If the key objectives of leadership are clarity of purpose, efficiency of undertaking and speed of execution, we certainly would benefit from a leader who is focused and organized. But what if the future is unclear, and a break from the past is needed? In that case a leader who is too quick to conclude and too focused on efficiency may not be the right choice. You will merely achieve rapid extrapolation of what has worked in the past.

When times are uncertain and ruling paradigms are changing, you need someone completely different: a leader who can imagine a different future, and take the people with him on a journey of often confusing change. That is why I have been fascinated to observe the new ‘available pope’ – a leader who worries about there being too many walls separating the church from the common person; who goes on walkabouts and has selfies taken with the adoring faithful.

It would be easy for conservatives to dismiss the new Pope as fitting a stereotype: that he is openhearted and simplistic, a creature of instinct, courting the media. I think that would be a mistake. This is clearly a man with a plan. One of his first utterances after becoming pontiff was to close friends: “I really need to start making changes right now.” Far from being guileless, he is someone who knows that change requires an appeal to the heart, not just the head. If you are going to cross the Red Sea again, you need to take the people with you.

I am, of course, writing about Pope Francis because he is about to touch down on Kenyan soil later this week. In this regard, some things to note. First, that Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Francis from Saint Francis of Assisi, the well-known champion of the poor and the downtrodden. Second, this is the first tweeting pope, and some of his tweets are memorable indeed. Some prime examples: “A Christian who is too attached to riches has lost his way.”; “Corruption is a cancer on society.”; and “Vanity not only distances us from God: it makes us look ridiculous.”

Aha! We can’t wait for the pontiff to bring this message forcefully to a land that fixates on material wealth, honours grotesquely overblown egos, and treats corruption as a way of life. I trust there will be some squeaky moments on the VIP seats when the pope speaks in Nairobi. And I hope he will remind us all, regardless of faith, of our fundamental responsibilities towards one another and of the need to stay humble and honest in our lives. We badly need reminding.

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