What’s in a pope’s name? When it comes to leadership, plenty

Jena McGregor
Columnist March 14, 2013

Much has been made of the new pope’s humble lifestyle. As a cardinal in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio prepared his own meals and took the bus. He lived in a simple apartment, declining the archbishop’s luxurious residence. He even flew coach.

And once he was named the new pontiff on Wednesday, his first acts revealed not only a humble way of life but a humble style of leadership. Rather than immediately blessing the faithful who were waiting outside the Vatican to hear the news, he asked them to bless him. He did not stand on the traditional raised platform above the other cardinals when he was introduced, prompting Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, to remark that “he met each of us on our own level.” After being named pontiff, he even insisted on paying his own bill at the church-run hotel where he had been staying, hoping to set a good example for other priests and bishops.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

Moreover, he selected a name, Francis, which not only signals a commitment to serving and ministering to the poor, but to being a “force of unity in a polarized fold,” as one Vatican expert wrote. Francis refers to St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most revered names in Catholicism for his love of the poor, and also for his inclusive nature and his founding of the Franciscan order.

That’s particularly significant because Bergoglio is a Jesuit — the first Jesuit pope, in fact — an order that is traditionally seen in contrast to the Franciscans. While the Jesuits were known as educators of the elite, the Franciscans turned their attention to the poor. As one columnist noted, “it is indeed profound that the first Jesuit Pope did not choose to honor St. Ignatius, the order’s founder, but instead selected the patron saint of an order known more for its humility than the tall spires of its institutions of higher learning.” In selecting the name Francis, then, Bergoglio signaled not only a mission of serving the humble, but the humble intent of putting unity within the church above his own personal background and order.

At a time when the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church has been riddled with internal rivalries, corruption and scandals, waving the flag of solidarity is likely to help build bridges within its hierarchy. In the wake of the embarrassing Vatican leaks scandal last year, the Catholic Church’s management is badly in need of repair and stronger cohesion. Priests in Europe and North America are pushing openly for reforms.

Most leaders don’t have the chance to change their name as a signal of how they plan to lead their organization. But Bergoglio’s choice of Francis — humble, yes, but more importantly, unifying — underscores the role that optics play for new leaders making first impressions.

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