Pope Francis: Leading from the front | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 29, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:46 PM, November 29, 2017

Pope Francis: Leading from the front

Pope Francis is a leader who leads by example and not only by words. Simplicity and concern for the poor are two distinctive marks of a good leader. Gandhiji is a clear example. Pope Francis too tries to lead a simple life. When he was made Cardinal in 2001 he asked his friends and well-wishers from Buenos Aires not to come to Rome but to give that money for the welfare of the poor. As a Cardinal he left his official residence and lived in an apartment; he cooked his own dinner. He travelled by ordinary public transport rather than the official conveyance.

On the day he was elected Pope, he broke several hitherto practised protocols: he preferred his ordinary black shoes to the papal red ones; instead of taking the Pope's limousine waiting for him, he jumped into the bus to go to his residence. After he was elected Pope he chose to live in Santa Marta, a hostel, rather than the Apostolic Palace.

So in the context of the present-day rat race for leadership (or rather, the rat race to climb the political or corporate slippery ladder, because real leaders never get into that rat race), Pope Francis appears to be an enigma. He told a group of students very clearly: “I did not want to be Pope. Is that okay?” Once he became the Pope he rejected most perks which come with the post. Does that say something to leaders of today? What is this leadership all about?

On May 26, 2013 Pope Francis chose to visit Sts Elizabeth and Zachariah's parish situated in the outskirts of Rome. This is not normal; the normal practice is to visit a baroque basilica in the city. Referring to the introduction the Pope remarked at the beginning of the Mass: “I like what you said: that the word ‘outskirts’ has a negative connotation but also a positive one. Do you know why? Because we understand reality better from the outskirts, not the centre. We understand it better.”

Very often when they reach the top, leaders tend to look at reality from the luxurious, carpeted cosiness of their chambers. The centre, where the leader resides, represents power. True. But it does not represent the whole reality. It may be a tiny portion in many parts of the world. The greater majority often live at the “periphery”.

Here life is harsh, intense and relentless. The leader who does not experience such realities is at risk of soon becoming irrelevant. That is why Pope Francis seeks the periphery. It is in this spirit, on July 8, 2013 he visited Lampedusa, a small island where asylum seekers arrived prior to entering Europe. There he decided (much against his nature) that he “had to travel.” It is in this spirit of reaching out to the far-flung regions (the outskirts) that he visited Colombia. This is the spirit that governs his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh too. He wants to understand the reality here firsthand. It is in this spirit that he appointed Archbishop Patrick D'Rozario CSC a cardinal. He has to become the voice of the “periphery”. The Pope is interested in the periphery; he is concerned about the life of the people at the “outskirts”. Let us take another incident. Maundy Thursday is a special day for all Christians. It is the day before Good Friday on which Jesus Christ was hanged on the cross. On Maundy Thursday night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. This is repeated in a symbolic way in all the churches even today. The Pope too does it and so do other bishops and priests. Usually 12 elderly persons are selected, to represent the disciples of Jesus. In the case of the Pope it is usually the pedicured feet of 12 worthies of Rome that he washes symbolically.

But Pope Francis did not do that. On Maundy Thursday (March 28, 2013) he chose to go to a detention centre at Casal del Marmo. He washed the feet of 12 detainees, among whom were Orthodox Christians, Muslims and two women as well.

The Pope explained why he broke the long-revered tradition: “Washing feet means 'I am at your service'… As a priest and a bishop, I must be at your service.” Here is a leader who stoops to serve. True leadership is not “to be served” but to serve. True leadership is not to wield power but to exercise the authority that is invested in them for the benefit of the people. That is what Jesus Christ had told his disciples: “I whom you call Teacher and Master have washed your feet so that you too may wash each other's feet.” This is servant leadership that Jesus taught 2,000 years ago. This leadership pattern is now slowly becoming a viable and popular concept. This is the leadership that the Holy Father practises. Indeed he is the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. But his leadership is to serve humanity; it is not for self-aggrandisement.

Authentic leadership does not come easy; but all those who desire to walk in front of others, all those who want to lead from the front, have to be authentic. In order to do this, to be authentic and boldly stand before the people, one has to know them; know, not only the ones at the centre, who normally toe the line of the leader, but also those at the periphery who may not always agree with the leader. On May 18, 2013 in his address in St Peter's Square, the Pope said: “Today's world stands in great need of witnesses, not so much of teachers but rather of witnesses. It is not so much about speaking, but rather speaking with our whole lives.” A true leader leads not by words but by his or her life.


Fr George Ponodath SJ is a member of the Society of Jesus, the same Society to which Pope Francis belongs. He was Rector of St Xavier's College, Kolkata and Director of Educational Media Research Centre. He is in Bangladesh as a Missionary.


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