Lessons we can learn from Pope Francis’ leadership “diseases”

Ryan Boyd
Lessons we can learn from Pope Francis’ leadership “diseases”

Bureaucracy and other hindrances to success are endemic in the corporate world, but not unique to it.

In December last year, Pope Francis gave a speech to church leaders about the “diseases” prevalent in the Roman Curia, the organisation that conducts the affairs of the Catholic Church.

His words to the Cardinals and other high ranking church members were not subtle, listing 15 “diseases” that he had observed so the church can turn them around.

Cleverly, Gary Hamel wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review took the Pope’s words and applied them to the corporate world, finding that the lessons are just as applicable.

“Through the years, I’ve heard dozens of management experts enumerate the qualities of great leaders,” Gary says in the article. “Seldom, though, do they speak plainly about the ‘diseases’ of leadership. The Pope is more forthright. He understands that as human beings we have certain proclivities — not all of them noble. Nevertheless, leaders should be held to a high standard, since their scope of influence makes their ailments particularly infectious.

“The Catholic Church is a bureaucracy: a hierarchy populated by good-hearted, but less-than-perfect souls. In that sense, it’s not much different than your organisation. That’s why the Pope’s counsel is relevant to leaders everywhere.”

Here is a condensed version of the Pope’s lists of ‘diseases’, including some of Gary’s translations, and how they can be incorporated into the corporate world.


The disease of thinking we are “immortal”, “immune” or downright “indispensable”.

The Pope comments that if an organisation and its leaders are “not self-critical, (do) not keep up with things, (and do) not seek to be more fit, (then it) is a sick body.” He goes on to mention that no one is “immortal, immune, and indispensable”, which a quick trip to the cemetery will confirm.

Gary updates the Pope’s words for the corporate world with: “It is the pathology of power and comes from a superiority complex, from a narcissism which passionately gazes at its own image and does not see the face of others, especially the weakest and those most in need.”

Humility, the Pope says, is the antidote.


The disease of excessive busy-ness.

Work/life balance is needed in all areas of work, and while the Pope refers to dedicating time for reflection on faith, the rest of us need to also spend time doing things encourage both mental and physical rest and recovery.

As the Pope says, “A time of rest, for those who have completed their work, is necessary, obligatory and should be taken seriously.”


The disease of “petrification”

Becoming mentally and emotionally detached from people (aka: becoming jaded) is another disease the Pope can relate to.

“It is found in those who have a heart of stone, the ‘stiff-necked’, in those who in the course of time lose their interior serenity, alertness and daring, and hide under a pile of papers.

“It is dangerous to lose the human sensitivity that enables us to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice!”

Gary’s rephrasing of the lesson for business leaders is, “Being a humane leader means having the sentiments of humility and unselfishness, of detachment and generosity.”

Pull out quote Gary

The disease of excessive planning and of functionalism.

While acknowledging that planning is a good thing, too much of it can prevent wonderful things to occur spontaneously.

Gary translates the Pope’s words perfectly: “When a leader plans everything down to the last detail and believes that with perfect planning things will fall into place, he or she becomes an accountant or an office manager.

“Things need to be prepared well, but without ever falling into the temptation of trying to eliminate spontaneity and serendipity, which is always more flexible than any human planning.

“We contract this disease because it is easy and comfortable to settle in our own sedentary and unchanging ways.”


The disease of poor coordination.

Quite simply, teams working together towards the same goal are essential to success.

As the Pope explains, “Once its members lose communion (or in the business sense, community) among themselves, the body (team) loses its harmonious functioning and its equilibrium; it then becomes an orchestra which produces noise: its members do not work together and lose the spirit of fellowship and teamwork.”


Leadership Alzheimer’s disease

Originally titled by the Pope as ‘Spiritual Alzheimer’s disease’, Gary renamed this one and defined it as: “Losing the memory of those who nurtured, mentored and supported us in our own journeys.”

He says the disease can be found “in those who are completely caught up in the present moment, in their passions, whims and obsessions; in those who build walls and routines around themselves.”


The disease of rivalry and vainglory

Defined by the Pope as “When appearances, the colour of our clothes and our titles of honour become the primary object in life,” this disease results in leaders who, as Gary says, “forget our fundamental duty as leaders.

“[As leaders, we must] look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others.”


The disease of existential schizophrenia.

Losing touch with the people and the real world is a disease that will infect leaders the more removed they get, and is something leaders may suffer from the higher they rise.

Paraphrasing the Pope, this is the disease of those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive emptiness which no accomplishment can fill.


The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting.

Cutthroat political manoeuvring is another similarity between the corporate world and the Roman Curia, and in need of curing.

“It is a grave illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk,” the Pope said, “and takes over a person, making him become a ‘sower of weeds’ and in many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues.

“It is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the courage to speak out directly, but instead speak behind other people’s backs.”


The disease of idolising superiors.

No one likes a suck-up, not even the Pope: “This is the disease of those who court their superiors in the hope of gaining their favour. They are victims of careerism and opportunism.

“They serve thinking only of what they can get and not of what they should give. Small-minded persons, unhappy and inspired only by their own lethal selfishness.”

 Pope Francis Quote

The disease of indifference to others.

The belief that the corporate world is “every man for himself” is another theme the Pope’s lessons can apply to.

“This (disease) is where each individual thinks only of himself and loses sincerity and warmth of human relationships. When the most knowledgeable person does not put that knowledge at the service of his less knowledgeable colleagues.

“When we learn something and then keep it to ourselves rather than sharing it in a helpful way with others. When out of jealousy or deceit we take joy in seeing others fall instead of helping them up and encouraging them.”


The disease of a lugubrious face.

Optimism and a smile trump cynicism and a frown every time, and the Pope’s definition of a negative influence perfectly relate to the business world:

“Those glum and dour persons who think that to be serious we have to put on a face of melancholy and severity, and treat others – especially those we consider our inferiors – with rigour, brusqueness and arrogance.

“So let us not lose that joyful, humorous and even self-deprecating spirit which makes people amiable even in difficult situations.”


The disease of hoarding.

The problem with the greedy is that they are never satisfied, sometimes at the detriment of an organisation’s goals.

This is the basis of this disease the Pope identifies as when someone “Tries to fill an existential void in his heart by accumulating material goods, not out of need but only in order to feel secure.

“All our earthly treasures – even if they are gifts – will never be able to fill that void; instead, they will only make it deeper and more demanding.

“Accumulating goods only burdens and inexorably slows down the journey!”


The disease of closed circles

Gary translates the Pope’s observation for the business world, defining the disease as: “Where belonging to a clique becomes more powerful than our shared identity.

“This disease too always begins with good intentions, but with the passing of time it enslaves its members and becomes a cancer which threatens the harmony of the organisation and causes immense evil, especially to those we treat as outsiders.”


Lastly: the disease of worldly profit, of forms of self-exhibition.

An incredibly harmful infection to have in your organisation, this is the disease to get to the top by any means necessary.

As Gary translates, “This is the disease of persons who insatiably try to accumulate power and to this end are ready to slander, defame and discredit others; who put themselves on display to show that they are more capable than others.



Photo credit:Canonization 2014-The Canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II via photopin(license)


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