March 2015

Leading by flipping the omelette

Pope Francis’ leadership differs markedly from that of his predecessors. He models two clear principles that our political leaders and, in fact all of us who lead in some capacity, would do well to emulate, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

“We’ve got to flip the omelette”, Pope Francis told a group of religious leaders from Latin America in the early days of his papacy. Why was it, he asked, that it’s world news when the Dow Jones moves up or down a few points, but not when an elderly person dies of cold in the street? If we are to be faithful to the Gospel, he said, we’ve got to change and turn this around.

A brief two years ago from his very first appearance on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica with his warmly shy “Buona sera”, Pope Francis has been flipping the omelette, particularly in regard to papal leadership style. Catholics can feel the difference. And business leaders are taking note. Witness the growing number of business magazine articles and books exploring what’s been described as the Pope’s “radical” leadership style.

The how of Francis’ leadership differs markedly from that of his predecessors. He models two clear principles that our political leaders and, in fact all of us who lead in some capacity, would do well to emulate.

The first principle: allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Instead of an infallible monarch, what we first recognise in Pope Francis is his humanity. I see him as a vulnerable human being. Francis exposes himself when he speaks without guile and without fear or favour about the problems besetting the Curia and each time he speaks off the cuff at a spontaneous press conference – surely to the angst of his media minders. Without the security of slogans, spin or vetted questions, he speaks colloquially and transparently. He maintains eye contact. He listens. He doesn’t mince words. He makes mistakes.

One small example. Catholics “needn’t breed like rabbits”, Francis said in a press conference on his flight back to Rome from the Philippines. To my ears this sounded refreshing, but not everyone thought so. A week later Francis said he was “truly sorry” that his comments had caused offence to large families.

Popes have been humble, but it’s not apparent that being vulnerable has appeared in any papal ‘job description’. An aura of certainty and infallibility have ruled – but not now, with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get Francis.

American social worker Brené Brown has become a YouTube star with her TED talk on research into vulnerability. “The Power of Vulnerability” has subtitles in 49 languages and nearly 19 million views, suggesting that Brown is onto something.

Vulnerability is painful, Brown says, and so we “armour up”, to avoid it. Like Tony Abbott, we “shirtfront” our disputant.

Or else, according to Brown, we blame: “This is all the previous government’s fault”, or we make out our actions are perfect and pretend they are benign.

The response to the Australian Human Rights Commission Report on children in detention is a case in point. Would there have been some omelette flipping from either side of politics!

Perhaps mindful of their own culpability in regard to a harsh mandatory detention regime, the Federal Labor Opposition remained fairly mute, while both the Prime Minister and his former Immigration Minister discounted the disturbing findings of the evidenced-based report and proceeded to shoot the messenger, the HRC President Gillian Triggs. Mr Abbott felt no empathy, no guilt – “none whatsoever”, he said, about the findings of the report which documented the mental illness and sexual abuse of children in detention. He preferred to gloat over the government’s success in “stopping the boats”. Nameless, vulnerable children were once again ignored and thus further abused.

Last week the blame game was evident once again in Australia’s response to a United Nations report which found Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers breaches international conventions. Instead of addressing the substance of the report the Prime Minister blamed the UN for having the temerity to “lecture” us.

Painful though vulnerability is, Brown says that it is the birthplace of joy, compassion, creativity, connection and, ultimately, love. We can only really connect with others if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we fess up that we’ve made mistakes and when we allow ourselves to be seen, not as we should be seen, but really seen.

Vulnerability unleashes its creative potential, Brown says, when we love with our whole hearts, even those who may not respond; when we practise gratitude and “lean into joy”; and most important, when we believe that we’re enough and, by extension, that those around us are enough. Take a bow, Pope Francis.

The second principle: believe that reality is more important than ideas.

In a recently published biography, The Great Reformer – Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, Austen Ivereigh, one-time deputy editor of The Tablet and former press secretary for British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, documents the Pope’s consistent campaign against any form of ideology.

As Provincial of the Jesuits, Jorge Mario Bergoglio warned the Jesuits about a “fascination for abstract ideologies that do not match our reality”. Then as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he stated that a key principle for good government – both secular and religious – was that “Reality is superior to the idea”. Social change, the future Pope said, must be people driven, not driven by “the arrogance of the enlightened”.

Ideology is defined as “a set of beliefs that affects our outlook on the world. Our ideology is our most closely held set of values and feelings, and it acts as the filter through which we see everything and everybody”.

The Pope’s disdain for ideology arises from his recognition that it coerces reality to fit into an idea of the world and then turns people into instruments to achieve particular ideological ends. It filters out diverse and plural voices, perspectives and experiences. Francis had experience of this with Argentine politics. It seems that he has experienced it in the Church.

He highlights his belief that realities are greater than ideas in Evangelii Gaudium. Ideas, he says, must be at the service of the real needs of real people; if not we are left with rhetoric and “manipulated truth” – in other words, with “spin” (Evangelii Gaudium, #231-233). Instead of being ideologically driven, Pope Francis believes that government has a deep and noble purpose: “to serve the common good, to protect the vulnerable, to build up bonds of trust and reciprocity”.

Last year Australia’s Treasurer, Joe Hockey, attempted to massage his first budget as the government’s preparedness to “take the tough decisions”. But when these decisions are disproportionately “tough” for the most vulnerable among us, surely there is an unhealthy ideology at play.

And so too, within the Church. Faith can become a rigid ideology, Francis says, which “chases away the people, distances the people and distances the Church of the people”. The Pope’s counterweight to this is simple: rediscover Christ. Don’t only listen to the clerical elite and the learned, but discover Christ first among the poor. Be wary of any religious culture that gets in the way of living the Gospel.

Pope Francis reminds us that God accepts reality as it is. Jesus became human and rather than adopting the ideology of the religious and political leaders, responded to people in their here-and-now neediness and unworthiness. Francis’ words and actions echo Thomas Merton’s insight that “God can only be found by sinking into the heart of the present as it is”.

Governments and religions could learn from Francis’ two leadership principles. But what about me? What do I take from these two leadership principles?

First I have to admit how easy I find it to pick ideology in others but not in myself. You have an ‘ideology’; I have a ‘worldview’. Am I prepared to do some serious soul-searching and honestly concede that my left-of-centre, feminist ‘perspective’ may be more biased and ideological than I care to believe? Am I able to listen, really listen, to diverse perspectives? Am I predisposed to engage in the hard slog of genuine dialogue rather than arrogantly dismiss the one who disagrees? Am I willing to see the person behind the ideologue? Can I have the courage to be vulnerable, to be imperfect but authentic?

If I can say yes to but one of these, I certainly will have flipped the omelette.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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