Everyday Theology: To view the pasture, leave the sheep pen

"Francis is a case study for leadership; he has every attribute that shows up on checklists for good leaders."

Politicians would love to have Pope Francis’ approval ratings.  His popularity crosses party lines and spills over the borders of the tiny state he heads. The spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, Francis may be the most influential and galvanizing leader on the world stage. Leadership traits alone cannot fully explain the “Francis effect”.

Francis is a case study for leadership; he has every attribute that shows up on checklists for good leaders.  And while many politicians share some of the same traits, few enjoy the level of popularity of the pope.  In my view, this is because leadership cannot be boiled down to a checklist of behaviors.

Leadership requires more than the mastery of a set of skills.  An outstanding leader also communicates, through words and actions, who he is, and the values that inform his life. We might refer to this as the leader’s spirituality.

Apart from his leadership abilities, Francis’ spirituality attracts people.  His humility and respect for others reflect his understanding of service and his commitment to placing people at the center of his papacy.

It would be unfair to make a direct comparison between the leadership style of Francis and those individuals presently seeking the top job in the nation.  After all, Francis does not have to worry about getting elected, or coming up with a platform that appeals to a majority of voters.  But there is one page from his playbook that our national party leaders might consider imitating.

Francis inherited a church rife with problems. He identified one of these problems as clericalism, the focus on privilege, status and power that separates priests from the people they are supposed to serve.   “Priests”, said Francis, “should be shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”

Our national party leaders say they walk and talk with “ordinary Canadians”; each one would have us believe that he alone has the pulse of the nation.  But, it is obvious from watching the televised coverage of the leaders’ tour that none are taking on the multitude of smells that permeate the pasture.  The majority of people who attend the campaign events are party faithful, and the individuals who stand nodding in agreement behind the leader are there to persuade others to join the fold.

Our national party leaders are accustomed to the smell of their own pen. While that is not necessarily bad, it limits perspective. Leaders may miss the bleating of dissonant voices, voices that could help the country to become more prosperous and equitable.

This hanging around at the center of one’s pen does not end with the campaign; it makes it way into government in the form of partisanship.

The center of the sheep pen does not afford a complete view of the pasture. As Francis observed while visiting a parish at the edge of Rome,  “We understand reality better not from the center, but from the outskirts.”

During an election, leaders try to convince voters that their party has the best ideas. After the election, the top dog would do well to seek perspectives and incorporate worthy ideas that come from outside the party fold.

Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com

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