The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Pope Francis defines a good political leader

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pope Francis's moving and historic speech to Congress on Thursday had plenty of calls for action and words of advice for the lawmakers he was addressing.

He spoke of their responsibilities: "to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation."

He spoke about their duty: "you are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics."

And he called for cooperation and unity, saying the challenges of our times "demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience."

Let's hope they were listening.

Yet skim the 3,000-plus word speech for the word "leader," and Francis used that specific word in only two places. Toward the end of the speech, he spoke about overcoming "historic differences" and "when countries which have been at odds resume a path of dialogue"—a possible reference to the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba or the deal with Iran. Then he provided his own definition of what makes a political leader effective.

"A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

The latter sentence recalls a passage from his apostolic exhortation from late 2013. In it, he promoted the idea that political leaders focus too much on the present and on power, when they should be focusing on actions that will "generate new processes in society." He also said, "Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion ... giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes."

Perhaps the simpler one for lawmakers to comprehend is his first definition: that good political leaders are the ones who always think of the common good, and who take action with a realistic yet open mind. It's a reminder our elected leaders needed to hear.

Read also:

Six things you should read to understand Pope Francis

Transcript: Pope Francis’s speech to Congress

Could Pope Francis save Congress?

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.