Pope Francis's surprise videotaped TED Talk on Tuesday night had many memorable lines, perhaps none more so than his call for a “revolution of tenderness.” He suggested that the conference's tech leaders, investors, journalists and academics consider “how wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us.”
And he issued a warning, not only for the influential folks in the room but also the politicians and leaders in power around the world: “Please, allow me to say it loud and clear,” the pontiff said firmly, deliberately. “The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don't, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.”
Yet for all the notable lines in the nearly 18-minute remarks, what he did at the end of the talk may have been even more powerful. As he finished, Francis served up a reminder of what humble leadership looks like. “And so, please, think of me as well with tenderness,” he said to those in the audience, “so that I can fulfill the task I have been given, for the good of the other, of each and every one, of all of you.”
In case you missed it, here is the most powerful man in the Catholic Church, humbly asking a bunch of TED conference attendees to keep him in their thoughts, seeking their help as he goes about his work.
That kind of role-modeling helps underscore his message in a world that still muddles authority with leadership and conflates power with muscle-flexing. It offers an example for a world where an American president — one who never apologizes and mostly speaks in boastful superlatives — campaigned that “I alone can fix it” and considers “strong control” evidence of a better leader. It's an immediate illustration of what humility in leadership looks like.
Pope Francis, of course, has made a habit of demonstrating that humbleness with his actions. Just after being named the new pontiff in 2013, he asked those gathered to pray for him, rather than the other way around. He refused to stand on the usual platform above other archbishops, bringing himself down to their level, just as he noted in his TED remarks. And even though the Roman Catholic Church gives him “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered,” he famously asked in 2013, speaking about gay clergymen, “who am I to judge?”
In the TED talk, his words about power were powerful, yes. He shared a relatable saying from Argentina, that “power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach. You feel dizzy, you get drunk. You lose your balance.” He reminded the people in the room that “the future of humankind is not exclusively in the power of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a ‘you’ and themselves as part of an ‘us.'”
But by showing his audience what that actually looks like — by asking them as he closed to keep him in their thoughts as he, the world's most influential Catholic leader, tries to fulfill his task — his words became actions that were even more powerful.