6 Leadership Lessons of St. Francis

Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

As we approach the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct 4, I ponder what I can learn from him about leadership. Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership. And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance what approach to leadership would prove effective. As I reflect on Francis’ life, six lessons in leadership effectiveness stand out to me.

  1. Be true to yourself. Francis traveled a number of paths before he found the one that was right for him. The son of a successful cloth merchant in thirteenth-century Italy, Francis seemed destined for business success. From playboy to soldier to knight to cloth merchant, Francis experimented with paths he thought might suit him. It was only when he heard God’s call to rebuild the church that he discovered his true path. Yet when he abandoned his father’s business and embraced poverty and service, the townspeople called him crazy. For years he wandered through his native city following a path that no one understood. In time, as he persevered in pursuing the way that was his to pursue, a few people caught his vision and began to follow him. Eventually, his followers numbered in the thousands. By being true to himself and persevering in the face of misunderstanding and mockery, Francis forged a new way that attracted thousands.
  2. Love God passionately. Francis brought the passion of his former life to his love of God. Not one for half measures, Francis fell utterly in love with God, and loved with abandon. He roamed the countryside singing of his love, and he constantly sought ways to please God.
  3. Embrace all. Francis learned early on that rebuilding God’s church meant embracing everyone. He embraced the leper who represented the lowest caste in society. When people began to follow his way, he embraced brothers from the highest class to the lowest, inviting them to live together in simplicity and community. When Clare ran away from home in order to follow him, he embraced her and helped her establish a women’s order. Francis learned to see the gifts that each person brought and to embrace people with gratitude for their contributions.
  4. Live with joy. Francis lived with contagious joy. His delight in the beauty of nature, in the uniqueness of each person, in the gifts of God, drew people to him. Even in adversity, Francis lived with joy. For example, when a hut in which he took refuge for a night proved to be infested with mice, after an initial expression of displeasure, Francis welcomed his “brother mice” with joy and hospitality. His joy disarmed friends and detractors alike.
  5. Approach power courageously. Francis, the “little poor man of Assisi,” decided early in his ministry that he and his tiny band of brothers should approach the Pope to ask for his blessing on their way of life. Undaunted by Pope Innocent III’s wealth and power in contrast to their outcast status, the rag-tag band walked from Assisi to Rome. Rebuffed by the cardinals when they arrived, they persevered in seeking an audience with the Pope. After the Pope had a dream in which he saw a little poor man holding up a huge church, he realized he needed to talk to Francis. Francis and the brothers, fearless before the Pope, described their way of life as living the gospel as Jesus intended. The Pope, impressed by their sincerity and commitment, gave his provisional blessing.
  6. Reach across differences. The Crusades broke Francis’ heart. He hated seeing Christians fighting Muslims over the holy land. In 1219, he traveled to Egypt where the battle was raging, and crossed enemy lines, unarmed, in order to speak with the Ottoman Sultan. He hoped to find common ground, and risked his life to do so. He boldly spoke to the Sultan and the Sultan listened attentively. Though he didn’t achieve reconciliation, the two men left the encounter with mutual respect and admiration.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, discovered how to be an effective leader as he followed his calling. Much of his success in leadership was a side effect of his faithfulness.

St. Francis displayed a great deal of love and courage during his lifetime, and he influenced many people through his example. His life, teachings, and spiritual insights have attracted many followers through the years. His teachings are timeless and continue to live on today. I can’t help but wonder what Francis would say today about responding to suffering people. How would he respond, for example, to refugees from Haiti and Afghanistan or to those displaced by hurricanes or wildfires, or to those suffering from COVID-19? On Francis’ feast day, perhaps we can seek to look at the world through his eyes and seek to live, love, and lead as he did.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in May 2015.)

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