What leadership lessons does Pope Francis offer small business owners?

Pope Francis at the Varginha shantytown, part of a slum area of northern Rio so violent it's known as the Gaza Strip. He has been dubbed the "slum pope" for his work with the poor.
Pope Francis at the Varginha shantytown, part of a slum area of northern Rio so violent it’s known as the Gaza Strip. He has been dubbed the “slum pope” for his work with the poor.

One evening at a coastal town I went to a fast-food pizza shop to buy my daughter a pizza. I was surprised at that time of the night – around 10 o’clock – to find a manager in the store working on the store’s human resources systems. I was impressed by this leadership and curious to find out more.

The manager at the store was one of five managers who look after different parts of the business of a chain consisting of six franchise pizza outlets in Cape Town. The owner is himself a top human resources practitioner and it was interesting to see how even without him present how much emphasis is placed on the human resources side of the business.

What an excellent approach to have with small fast-food franchise outlets, I thought. By placing the focus on people development this pizza business is able to compete more effectively in the cut-throat competitive Cape Town marketplace. People management makes up a big part of labour-intensive take-away restaurants. The amazing thing was that without the owner present there was still much evidence of his leadership and vision permeating through the business.

That’s what leadership is all about – enabling people to follow a clear vision and to do the right things even when the owner is not around. Looking out all the time what employees are doing is called management.

Leadership, as people who study this field will tell you, is about building a cohesive leadership team, establishing clarity among the leaders, communicating this clarity to everyone and possessing the right structure to reinforce this clarity.

It’s not just about the qualities of the leader and trying to follow different leadership styles such as charismatic leadership, innovative leadership, command and control leadership, laissez-faire leadership, pacesetter leadership, servant leadership, situational leadership, and transformational leadership.

The most important thing is to know your own leadership style and be aware of the needs of your business and adapt your style to your vision and mission, business objectives and the business environment.

Someone who has caught the attention of the media for his leadership style is Pope Francis who possesses such leadership qualities such as sacrifice, (not something many leaders are comfortable with), humility (big egos don’t like this one) and selflessness (most would immediately want to know what’s in it for me?).

Pope Francis recently featured on the cover of the iconic magazine “Rolling Stone” and was nominated TIME’s 2013 Person of the Year. As Rolling Stones Mark Binelli said, Pope Francis, the 266th vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth, is “a man whose obvious humility, empathy and, above all, devotion to the economically disenfranchised has come to feel perfectly suited to our times…”

TIME magazine says: “The skeptics will point to the obstacles Francis faces in accomplishing much of anything beyond making casual believers feel better about the softer tone coming out of Rome while feeling free to ignore the harder substance.” Yet, as TIME points out, in less than a year he has done much to change the tone and temperament of the church.

Although the Pope is known for his humility he is leading with significant actions. He is taking steps to address the scandal-riddled Vatican bank. He listens to those with differing ideas such as his meeting cardinals from Australia, Chile, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, Honduras, India, Italy and the United States. He also is tackling the difficult issues rather than running away from them — issues largely ignored by his predecessors.

What one that can admire about him is that he’s getting back to basics by focusing on the disenfranchised and poor — the neediest. He is demonstrating his values in often small but symbolic actions.

He has dropped the ostentatious perks of office (instead of living in the papal palace, he lives in a small apartment, not driving in the Mercedes his predecessor used (he uses a five-year-old Ford Focus, a stripped down model), settled his own bill in person at a hotel and when officiating at the service at an Italian youth prison, he washed the feet of the inmates as part of the service, including a Muslim women.

He has also shown an unusually open brand of leadership, rolling down the windows of his car to treat people when his driver took a wrong turning in Brazil and even swigging from a cup of mate, a caffeinated tea-like beverage popular throughout South America that was handed to him by a stranger during the same visit to Brazil.

While small business owners are unlikely to have the global leadership challenges that Pope Francis faces, all of us can learn from the leadership of this man which reflects a new approach to an organisation that over time has more and more lost its connection with its followers and the common touch that inspires and moves people.

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