On the Papal Conclave’s Eve: Leadership Notes from the Past


John Paul II proclaimed, “Be not afraid.” Ronald Reagan spoke of “a city on a hill.” Both teamed up to stare down communism, backing strong words with resoluteness.

Having had the good fortune of studying in Rome as an undergrad, I recall with sweet fondness standing in the shadow of Bernini’s great colonnade many a time to see  Pope John Paul II bless the crowds from his window overlooking St. Peter’s square. Now, I wait with eagerness along with billions of Catholics and other interested observers worldwide to see the white smoke emerge and a new pope step out to greet the world.  As we wait, I have been reflecting on events from recent papacies that speak to leading organizations of all sizes.

The Unexpected

When the former Angelo Roncalli became Pope John 23rd at the age of 77 in 1958, few expected the portly unknown cardinal to be anything more than a “caretaker,” keeping the papal seat warm for a few years and not doing much else.  No one foresaw the seismic shift he was soon to usher in with the simple but dramatic calling of the conference (known as Vatican II) which more than any other single event brought the Church into the modern age.

  • Lesson: Sometimes one simple but profound, singular leadership decision can change everything – shaping and re-setting all prior agendas.

Bestriding the World Stage

If no one anticipated John 23rd’s actions as pope, even fewer predicted Karol Wojtyla’s election as the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.  From the very first moment of his introduction in 1978, though, the then 58-year old Polish theologian, playwright, outdoorsman, and survivor of both Nazi and Soviet Communist oppression was equal to the moment.  Greeting a stunned world, he uttered three simple words: “Be not afraid.”  And then he spent the next 27 years backing up his words with actions, including:

… standing side by side with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher (and Lech Walesa) in staring down communism

… in his waning years, with his body failing from Parkinson’s and other ailments, persevering in his physical suffering to give hopeful example to a suffering world

  • Lesson: Decisive words, backed up by consistent and persistent action, can move mountains.

Humility is Strength, not Weakness

It would seem unlikely, on a surface level, that a man who held the papal office for a mere 33 days would be much beloved and remembered decades later, much less have had a profound impact on a 2000-year old institution.  Yet, 66-year old Albino Luciani – Pope John Paul I –did just that.  Known as “The Smiling Pope,” he was the first to eschew many of the regal elements of the papacy, doing much to humanize the office in just a short time.  It was his simple manner and visible kindness and compassion that won over the faithful.  As Mother Theresa commented at the time, “He has been … a sunray of God’s love shining in the darkness of the world.”

  • Lesson: We have a great need to feel that our leaders are, at heart, like us.  A common touch  – simplicity, humility, and goodness – shines through without a word needing to be spoken.

Believers, skeptics, and so many in-between will have their eyes trained on Rome over the coming days.  As we watch the drama unfold, let us look to lessons from the past to help us lead our own organizations – whether local or global –into the future.

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