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What 21st Century Leaders Can Learn from the Pope Who Did Laundry Duty

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Chris Lowney
 
I was privileged to manage large teams on three continents during my investment banking career. But I learned my most valuable lessons about leadership from the pope who did laundry duty.
 
Soon after Jorge Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis, a publisher invited me to write a book about his leadership style. Jesuits I interviewed told me that Fr. Jorge Bergoglio, early in his life as a Jesuit priest, was placed in charge of a financially embattled seminary on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. To ensure its financial survival, Bergoglio decided that, in addition to their studies and spiritual ministries, the seminarians would also have to start undertaking duties previously handled by paid outside help: cleaning the hallways, doing the dishes, and so on.
 
And as for Bergoglio, the “boss” of these seminarians? I was told that anyone who walked through the seminary basement at 5:30 in the morning in those days could have seen the future pope on laundry duty, pitching sweaty sports togs and worn underwear into a big industrial washing machine.
That may seem nothing more than a charming anecdote. What leadership lesson could it possibly hold for managers of sophisticated global enterprises? To be sure, I’m not suggesting that Westpac or BHP employees dump their dirty laundry on the boss’s desk each morning.
 
But consider “doing the laundry” as a metaphor for what may be the most fundamental task of true leaders. By volunteering to do the laundry, Bergoglio was conveying a powerful message: I will only ask you to bear the sacrifices that I’m willing to bear myself. I’ll role model the behaviors that I want to see in the team.
 
In an era when those in authority often exempt themselves from the sacrifices they ask of team members, Bergoglio’s example was compelling. Decades later, his then-subordinates still remembered it, and it was one of the first things they told me about his leadership style. His willingness to role model shared sacrifice had won the allegiance of those seminarians; they wanted to be on his team.
 
Bergoglio had intuited a core insight that is encapsulated in the US Air Force’s definition of leadership, namely that leaders must behave in ways that will “win” the “confidence, respect, and loyal cooperation” of team members, in order to achieve common objectives.
 
Bergoglio won respect and cooperation by his willingness to make the same modest sacrifice of time and energy that he was requesting of seminarians.
How about you? Whether you are leading a family, a small social service agency, or a giant multinational: How are you winning your colleagues’ and subordinates’ confidence, cooperation, and respect?
 
Too many leaders, indeed most leaders in my experience, never ask themselves that vital question. Rather, because they hold a certain title, rank, or position of authority, they simply assume that team members should be loyal and cooperative. Maybe the world worked that way decades ago, but it certainly doesn’t work that way now. Job one for the leader is winning the team’s respect, cooperation, and confidence.
 
Fortunately, doing so is not some arcane, mysterious art. Leaders can win cooperation and respect in all kinds of ways. We do so by role modeling behaviors that are compelling and attractive to colleagues: by our hard work, smarts, dedication, preparation, and commitment to putting the mission ahead of our own ego, greed, or ambition. We do so by our integrity, when our words are matched by our deeds.
 
Above all, we win the respect of team members by how we treat them: by developing their talents, nurturing their careers, respecting their intelligence, eliciting their input and opinions on key questions, and treating team members fairly, even kindly.
 
So let me invite leaders to learn a lesson from the pope who did laundry duty. Why not do a leadership “self-audit” some day this week, and at least once a month thereafter. Close the office door, put aside the phone, and engage in a few minutes of quiet self-reflection. Call to mind your encounters with subordinates over the last few days. Ask yourself: Were my behaviors and interactions the sort that likely won respect and confidence? Put differently: If someone had treated me the way that I treated my team members last week, would that have won my respect and cooperation?
 
More important than thinking about the past is resolving to do better in the future: What will I do tomorrow and the next day to win my team’s respect and cooperation?

Chris Lowney, a one-time Jesuit seminarian, later served as a Managing Director of J.P. Morgan & Co. His books include Heroic Leadership, Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads and Everyone Leads. He will be visiting Melbourne and Ballarat in September 2019.
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