The leader who triumphs with humility

26.09.15 Publication:

What makes for successful leadership, in these troubled times? America has for the past few days been witnessing two very different foreign leaders: one from Europe (though of Latin American origin) and one from China. One (yes, Pope Francis) has tried to lead through humility. The other (President Xi Jinping) has sought to look every bit the strongman who a few weeks ago held a huge military parade in Beijing. My bet is that the one who will have the most lasting impact is the one who arrived in a Cinquecento.

Admittedly, “lasting impact” is a tough test in the United States, the country of short attention spans, of instant and then instantly forgotten celebrity, and where Donald Trump is still successfully emulating Silvio Berlusconi’s skills at dominating the political limelight. And a Chinese president, tough or not, is always going to be thought of as a kind of enemy by Americans. But there are reasons for thinking that Pope Francis might nevertheless leave his mark.

One reason is that his style of leadership seems to meet a genuine need, on both sides of the Atlantic. Both force and raw political power have been discredited, whether by war or by financial crises. Public opinion has become ever more cynical about political leaders and their motives, especially when they come from the mainstream political establishment that many people blame for the West’s current and recent woes.

No one could, in a sense, be more mainstream than the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, arguably the world’s oldest political-cum-corporate organisation. And yet, as Europeans know well but Americans (at least, non-Catholic Americans) knew less well, Pope Francis has distinguished himself by being non-establishment, non-corporate and more cleverly political than his predecessors.

For years, the Catholic Church in America has been discredited by its scandals of sexual abuse, and Popes have been discredited along with it. One of Pope Francis’s strengths, then, is that among recent Popes he has been the first and only one not considered by Americans to share that guilt.

This is why Pope Francis’s humility and his refusal to associate himself with the grandeur and established structures and practices of his church is able to strike a chord in America. Normally, Americans admire power and wealth, and have no fear of opulence. Self-effacement is not an American characteristic. Acts of humility are often viewed with cynicism. But Pope Francis has pulled it off, because his humility is so consistent and therefore seems genuine, and because of the contrast it makes with the scandals of the past.

Most of all, though, his chance of having a lasting impact arises from the blend of that self-effacing humility with the adroit way in which he pitched himself as a bipartisan voice. America has become ever more partisan, ever more inclined to see thinks as being “us versus them”, ever more tribally Republican or Democrat. A Pope is, of course, quintessentially partisan, loyal to his faith and his church. But the positions he stressed happen to straddle America’s partisan divides, offering something, in appealingly soft language, to both.

It is quite a feat to end up being lauded by both Republicans and Democrats. It helps that Pope Francis is at one and the same time socially conservative and economically progressive, thus appealing with different facets of himself and of his worldview to both sides. But through his independent, un-self-serving manner, and through his gentle style of persuasion, he might, just might, have softened the resistance to compromise, might have opened the way to treating climate change, immigration and inequality as issues that are not tribal, are not black and white, but rather serious issues that need to be dealt with.

What President Xi Jinping will achieve through his visit to America is less clear. He also has things to say about climate change, and plans to announce. But in his case, his really big problems, and his true audience, lies at home. In that respect, his leadership, and his attitude to politics, is rather more American than that of Pope Francis.