A Cultural Reflection on Servant Leadership: Pope Francis and His Fiat

Some folks say he rocked his fall 2015 visit to the east coast in a small black Fiat.  In addition to several symbolic cultural acts and gestures regarding Pope Francis’ reign, his car speaks volumes about why organizational leaders should consider the representation of his servant leadership in the 21st Century.   Tenets of servant leadership within organizational leadership scholarship serve as guidance for understanding Pope Francis’ influence.  For instance, the virtuous perspective on servant leadership emphasizes the importance of agape love, humility, trust, empowerment, and service when considering leader-follower exchange.  This ORLD blog discussion interprets the role of trust through Pope Francis’s cultural expressions shared with his followers and those interested in the value of diversity and cultural awareness.  A culturally-relevant perspective of trust and servant leadership provides an opportunity for broadening an understanding of why culture is critical to building community and partnership.  Furthermore, understanding a leader’s cultural insight can facilitate a more sensitive approach to illustrating a servant’s interactions with followers.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first Hispanic Pope and he represents several cultural “firsts” for the Papacy.  He is the first Jesuit Pope, the first from the southern hemisphere, and the first from the Americas. In terms of building trust, it’s clear the potential for his reach to followers has expanded beyond the audiences of former Popes.  While trust in the Papacy may have existed among these audiences previously, the formal representation of this Pope means honoring and elevating Catholic traditions and practices within these assemblages in new ways.   The cultural background of this Papacy reflects a wider appeal to followers; translating the value of diversity within servant leadership like never before in the Papacy.

The notion of trust could be considered to reflect on the importance of the Papacy’s role in sustainability; or commitment to the ecological capacity to maintain resources in an effort to support and protect communities.   Some might argue this capacity speaks to the type of resources used; and the way they are used.  In a society where less could be seen as more, Pope Francis’s small black Fiat makes an enormous statement about his leadership.  His vehicle demonstrates that leaders can make choices about their resources to reinforce notions of care, love, stewardship, innovation, and style.  Ultimately, Pope Francis’s small black Fiat demonstrates how careful limitation can facilitate deeper connections with followers that legitimize their sustainable choices and value systems.

Pope Francis’s broader appeal also creates opportunity for establishing trust through mutual collaboration.  As a religious/spiritual leader, one of his primary roles as a servant is to encourage others to make connections with God through Jesus Christ.  Many of his followers request his support and leadership through prayer.  In addition to responding to these requests, Pope Francis embraces his service and stature to model trust as a collaborative process as he encourages his followers to pray for him as well – demonstrating that trust is part of a valued partnership.  One of the more profound examples of this partnership is the exchange between Pope Francis and follower John Boehner, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.  During Pope Francis’s fall 2015 visit to Washington, D.C., Mr. Boehner requested the Pope pray for him, and in response, Pope Francis requested Boehner also pray for him – prompting an emotional response from Boehner (with his resignation from Speaker of the House soon to follow this exchange).

Pope Francis’s visit reminds us how cultural reflections teach us critical aspects of organizational leadership.  Leaders make important choices about the uses of their resources, time, and voice.  This blog discussion only scratches the surface of what these choices mean to his followers.  Subsequently, deeper examination of servant leadership and trust could uncover additional valuable aspects of this important leader-follower exchange.

Written by Pamela P. Felder, Associate Professor, ORLD

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