If you’re committing leadership ‘sins,’ maybe it’s time to repent
  • leadership
  • Blog post

If you’re committing leadership ‘sins,’ maybe it’s time to repent

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I could be writing this blog post from almost anywhere on Earth. But as it happens, I’m in the Philadelphia area, where our company has its offices. And something big is happening here in just a few weeks — a visit from Pope Francis.

So maybe I’m paying more attention to Things Papal than I would otherwise. But whatever the reason, my eye was caught the other day by a piece in the Harvard Business Review headlined “The 15 Diseases of Leadership, According to Pope Francis.” The writer, Gary Hamel, a professor at the London Business School, took a recent address by the pope to the top Roman Catholic leadership in Rome and “translated” it into business language.

What I thought was very cool about Hamel’s reconstruction of the pope’s leadership precepts was that he (they?) looked at leadership development from an unusual angle — warning that leaders can develop in mistaken, even “diseased,” directions if they’re not careful. Needless to say, most of the leadership development literature doesn’t take this approach. But it’s appropriate when you consider what religious people might call the “fallen nature” of mankind — or what others might simply call human fallibility.

Recognize any of these symptoms?
I don’t propose to recap everything Hamel/the pope said in this space. You can go here to check out the full article.

But I do want to look at four of the leadership “diseases” that struck me particularly strongly:

  • “Excessive planning and functionalism.” Essentially, the pope is saying here that you can’t plan everything, and it pretty nearly amounts to a mental disorder to pretend you can. “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,” as Hamel/the pope put it. Do the perspiration, but leave room for inspiration.
  • “Mental and emotional petrification.” Here the pope warns against falling into the habit over time of treating human beings like things — Human Resources? — and forgetting that employees are people, too. “It is dangerous to lose the human sensitivity that enables us to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice.” This “disease” shares some of the symptoms of another condition the pope cited, namely “indifference to others.”
  • “A downcast face.” Being businesslike doesn’t mean scowling like Scrooge. “You see this disease in those glum and dour persons who think that to be serious you have to put on a face of melancholy and severity, and treat others — especially those we consider our inferiors — with rigor, brusqueness and arrogance.” The best leaders are humorous and even self-deprecating at times.
  • “Idolizing superiors.” Most leaders have their own leaders they report to, and the pope isn’t thrilled by sycophants. “This is the disease of those who court their superiors in the hope of gaining their favor. They are victims of careerism and opportunism. They think 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.”

Timely reminders
Certainly a very important aspect of leadership is accentuating the positive, and as you try to figure out how you’re doing as a leader, you should pat yourself on the back wherever possible. Being too hard on yourself does no good.

But at the same time, these reminders from the pope should help us remember that as human beings, there are many, many ways in which we can go wrong. If we know what leadership ills our flesh is heir to (to quote Hamlet), we can perhaps fend them off, or cure them if they’ve taken hold.

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