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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

What Any of Us Can Learn From Pope Francis

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Pope Francis greeting schoolchildren in Washington last week. Pope Francis greeting schoolchildren in Washington last week. Cliff Owen/AP

Like a lot of Americans, I spent a lot of last week transfixed by the coverage of Pope Francis’ trip to the United States. I’m not Catholic, but found myself moved by his words and images several times.

The pictures were what really got me. The look of joy of people in the crowds as Francis passed by or moved to touch them was unadulterated. The happy grin of the pope as he waved to the crowds out the back window of his Fiat as it left Andrews Air Force Base was priceless. There’s a picture in the New York Times this morning of the white robed arm of Francis extended for a handshake with the tattooed, ID bracelet wearing arm of an inmate in Philadelphia. How can you not be moved by that?

Because I work with a lot of leaders in very visible, demanding roles (not the papacy obviously), I’ve spent some time thinking about what any of us who are trying to make the most of what we do in life can learn from Pope Francis.

As the pope was in New York last week, I had a call with a coaching client who works in the city. We shared a few jokes about whether or not he was caught in papal gridlock and then found ourselves immersed in a conversation about why this Pope has had the impact he’s had on the heart of the world. The reasons are probably too numerous to count but a few stood out for us.

First, it seems like Pope Francis almost always shows up at his best. Whatever the situation or circumstance is, he seems to do or say just the right thing. He appears to be one of the most mindful people on the global stage today. He is usually exquisitely aware of what’s going on around him and, I suspect, inside of him. He then seems to act with focused intention based on that awareness.

This last week in America was a tour de force for the pope. How does a 78-year-old man with one functioning lung keep the schedule and pace that he kept? What are the routines that he follows that enable him to show up at his best so consistently? We have a little information on what he does to take care of himself and can make some educated guesses to fill in the gaps. For instance, in the physical domain of routines, I read that in the middle of a typically packed day in New York, Francis took several hours to rest. In the mental domain, it’s clear that Francis reads broadly and makes a habit of thinking deeply. Relationally, this pope seems to draw enormous energy and perspective from connecting with and listening to people in all walks of life. And, of course, in the spiritual domain of routines, Francis ceaselessly asks the people he meets to pray for him or, if they don’t believe in prayer, to think good thoughts for him (a strong relational routine there as well).

When it comes to the outcomes Pope Francis is trying to create in homes around the world, in its millions of workplaces and countless communities, he seems very clear about his answer to a vitally important organizing question – who are you doing it for? Through his words and actions, Francis makes it clear that he’s doing it for the “least of these.”

Whatever your belief system is, I think there’s a lot any of us can learn from Pope Francis about what it means to show up at our best, the routines that make that possible and the outcomes we help create by showing up that way and being aware and intentional about who we’re doing it for. And the really cool thing is we can get all of that education just by watching him in action.

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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