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What Obama Can Learn About Leadership From the Pope

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Image via Marcovarro/Shutterstock.com

A couple of days ago, in the wake of the zigs and zags of the U.S. response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I started thinking about writing a post on the points along the spectrum of clarity in leadership.

Anchoring one end of the spectrum is the last U.S. President, George W. Bush. One of the seminal moments in his presidency was when he said at a press conference, ”I’m the decider and I decide what’s best.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that. The problem comes when the decisions don’t turn out very well.

Anchoring the other end of my spectrum is President Obama who, over a year ago, declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government in Syria’s civil war would be a red line that demanded clear action from the United States. For a week after just such an attack, it looked like cruise missiles would be launched. Then, late in the game, the President decided to seek Congressional approval for the use of force. As it became clear that the President would lose such a vote, Vladimir Putin stepped in with the idea of negotiating the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons. All of that within the span of a week or so. Not exactly clear leadership.

So, I had my anchor points but was mulling over how to illustrate the middle of the leadership clarity spectrum. And then the Pope bailed me out.

As was widely reported late this week, Pope Francis recently gave a long interview in which he made clear that he has a strong vision for his church as “the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.” He spoke at length about his belief that the love of God for all people is greater than the legalism of his institution. In the first six months of his papacy, Francis has backed up his words with action by washing the feet of convicted criminals, making personal phone calls to the afflicted, offering to baptize the baby of an unwed mother to be, living in a small apartment rather than the papal palace and carrying his own luggage.

One thing the Pope is clear about is that no one can be clearly certain. In the interview, he said, “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good… If one has the answers to all the questions–that is the proof that God is not with him.”

Leadership isn’t about having all the answers or always being sure you’re right. It is, I think, about having some strong principles and backing them up with action. It seems to me that in that sense Pope Francis hits the right points on the spectrum of leadership clarity.

What’s your take? What does it take to hit the sweet spot on the spectrum of leadership clarity? If I look at the example of Francis, three characteristics on my list are humility, conviction and authenticity. What’s on your list?

Image via Marcovarro/Shutterstock.com

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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