Pope Francis: Giving the Work Back to the People at a Rate They Can Stand

photo credit: Aleteia Image Department, flickr

photo credit: Aleteia Image Department, flickr

Yesterday, over 800,000 spectators crowded the St. Peter’s Square area while 500,000 more watched on giant screens around Rome as Pope Francis canonized Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The first time a Pope has sainted two Popes at the same time, this historic event has been called a savvy political move by the media, since Pope Francis recognized both the more liberal John XXIII and the more conservative John Paul II, thus satisfying two opposing wings of the Roman Catholic church. While Pope Francis did indeed display political savvy at this canonization, this event holds far more significance than that (even leaving aside the spiritual question of discerning sainthood).

Pope Francis understands important principles of leadership, not just politics. As Ronald Heifetz et al. point out in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, leadership is about “mobilizing people to tackle tough problems,” and leadership involves bringing differences in values to the surface. Heifetz argues that, in any human group, people seek a leader who will solve their problems. But, because different people within a group hold different values, no leader can please everyone and no leader can solve all the problems in a way that satisfies everyone. Any leader who tries to be the hero and solve all the problems will be scapegoated, and the cycle of seeking the perfect leader who can solve all the problems will repeat itself. Instead of being a heroic problem-solver, the leader’s job, according to Heifetz, is to help people see the differences in values represented in the group and then “give the work back to the people at a rate they can stand.” When the people themselves wrestle with differences in values and work together to address problems, they come to respect one another and see nuances they didn’t see when they were polarized. Moreover, when they work together toward a solution, the outcome is stronger and longer-lasting than one fashioned by the leader alone.

Pope Francis, in canonizing the two Popes, named important values that each represents. He pointed out John XXIII’s efforts to bring the church into the twentieth century by convening the Second Vatican Council, and he named John Paul II a “Pope of the family.” He honored both men as courageous leaders.

By honoring both Popes, Francis acknowledged that both the liberal and the conservative wings of the church carry important values. He highlighted the best of what both Popes contributed. In so doing, he refused to take sides, but called the people of the church to see the best in opposing points of view.

By surfacing differences in values and calling people to respect the good in opposing viewpoints, Pope Francis is “giving the work back to the people at a rate they can stand.” He is mobilizing people to tackle the tough problems both within the church and without by preparing them to work together. As in his other initiatives, Pope Francis has refused once again to be pigeonholed.

10 Responses to “Pope Francis: Giving the Work Back to the People at a Rate They Can Stand”


  1. 1 susienallen April 29, 2014 at 1:57 am

    I love this article, Margaret! I so appreciate the way you have helped to see, once again, the strong and savvy and faithful leadership of Pope Francis. In my conversations with people of faith, I have found universal support for Pope Francis, no matter what the religious background. He so beautifully leads in a way that gives the work back to the people. Yay!

    • 2 executivesoulblog April 29, 2014 at 10:29 am

      Thanks, Susie. Yes, it’s interesting how widespread the support for Pope Francis is. In all his leadership, he does seem to be doing a good job of giving the work back to the people. I keep wondering if it’s still the honeymoon period, and if there will come a time when some people don’t like that he’s giving the work back to them.
      –Margaret

  2. 3 susanloucks April 29, 2014 at 6:15 am

    I am really appreciating the title quote – and also wondering how you gauge what the people can stand when you’re leader of an institution that large (I struggle to intuit what the group can stand even with 30 people!) It seems like the power is in the framing (modeling holding multiple values, or complexity) , and then allowing the work to get taken up by different groups in different ways. It’s leading by vision and symbol more than by action. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about it.

    • 4 executivesoulblog April 29, 2014 at 10:23 am

      Great question, Susan. I think it’s trial and error. One tries something, sees what happens, adjust, tries again, etc. This is true for both large groups and small groups. In his books, Heifetz gives both large-scale and small-scale examples, e.g. Lyndon Johnson leading the nation on civil rights. And I think you’re right that the power is in the framing. Thanks for helping me think about this more
      –Margaret.

  3. 5 Andy Drance April 29, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Thank you, Margaret, for presenting a perspective that I hadn’t considered — that of the need for people to appreciate the values that motivate their particular approach to problems in the church and in the world, and the values of “the other side”. As I have gotten older, I find myself being more tolerant of viewpoints that in the past I would have just blown off as ignorant and resistant to change. There is a place for all viewpoints, and we need to accept one another with love and compassion, and share our hope for a vibrant church that meets the needs of all its constituents.

    • 6 executivesoulblog April 30, 2014 at 3:28 pm

      Yes, Andy, the underlying values are such important motivators and so often we don’t take the time to examine them. And yes, the love and compassion you underscore must be the foundation of all of our interactions, both with like-minded and with opposing viewpoints, or we will get nowhere in tackling tough problems.

      Thank you.

      –Margaret

  4. 7 Nicolette Wellington April 29, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    Thank you Margaret for this wonderful new insight.
    I have always wondered how a pastor could lead with integrity trying to please everyone, an impossible task. This process is an eye-opener in terms of leadership style. Of course it is not a guarantee that everyone will be happy, but it invites relationship and open-mindedness. Great skill as well!

    I too am most excited about Pope Francis leadership style and the direction that he is modelling not only for Catholics but all denominations as we live our faith in the organizations of which we are a part.

  5. 9 Robert Alan Rife April 29, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Well said, dear sister. Well said.


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