November 17th, 2013
06:00 AM ET
Opinion by Chris Lowney
(CNN) – Every day, millions of Americans perform a task that epitomizes Pope Francis’ leadership style: They do the laundry.
I came to that somewhat surprising conclusion while talking to Jesuit priests who lived with the future Pope, then known as the Rev. Jorge Bergoglio, during the early 1980s. At the time, they were young Jesuit seminarians, and he was their “boss,” the rector of their 100-member community.
“He was very demanding when it came to studies,” one of them told me. “Do what you’re doing and do it well,” he used to say.
But the rector wanted the budding Jesuits to learn from people, not just from books.
“He used to send us to the opera and also have us clean the seminary bathrooms, because he wanted us to be adaptable to all kinds of situations.”
The seminarians all did volunteer work in poor communities, and one of them remembers Bergoglio telling them that “closeness to the poor is important for the formation of a priest’s heart.”
His mantra at the time was: “You’re going to learn from these people before you teach them anything,” the young Jesuits recall.
But when I asked these Jesuits what they learned from Bergoglio about being a good leader, the first memory they shared wasn’t a memorable speech or policy initiative.
Instead, they recalled Bergoglio doing the laundry.
Bergoglio used to stress that the seminarians were a family, and each person had to do his share of the chores to support the other family members.
Even though Bergoglio was their superior and carried a heavy administrative and teaching load, he also chipped in, taking the role of community laundry man.
Any seminarians awake at 5:30 in the morning could find him down in the basement, pitching bales of laundry into balky, 1980s-style industrial washing machines.
Why has that image stuck with them for more than three decades?
I suspect it’s because Bergoglio was embodying three vital leadership principles that every good parent instinctively understands, but that too many managers and executives forget.
Don’t tell us you value us, show us.
Many managers talk about respect, but treat team members more like tools than human beings. If you want to win the confidence and trust of your team, demonstrate in deeds that you value them.
Your corporate headquarters may not have a laundry machine, but I’m sure you can come up with some other way to demonstrate your concern for the team.
Don’t ask us to make sacrifices that you are unwilling to make.
The economic environment is harsh for organizations of all sorts. In order to survive, managers often ask sacrifices of their team members, whether it's shouldering a larger proportion of health insurance costs, working longer hours, or forgoing raises.
Most workers can accept these realities, except when managers exempt themselves from the sacrifices they ask of others. Too many chief executives, for example, get rewarded with lavish bonus increases even while slashing staff and cutting benefit packages for subordinates.
They ought to show some Bergoglio-style leadership. If they are going to ask the team to make sacrifices or take on extra chores, they ought to demonstrate their own willingness to sacrifice alongside them.
Send the message that you’re here to serve us, not that we’re here to serve you.
Soon after his election, Pope Francis said that “authentic power is service,” a simple yet profound vision. Those seminarians who remember him doing the laundry at 5:30 in the morning saw that vision in action: He is here to take care of our needs.
Too often, managers send the opposite signal. They squeeze information and labor from subordinates, as juice from a lemon. But they show little interest in recognizing and developing the talent and potential of their teams, or in ensuring that their basic needs are met.
Granted, doing the laundry will remain a pretty tiresome task, and family members will continue to strew dirty clothing here and there, oblivious to how it later becomes clean.
But launderers can take at least a little solace that they are disseminating some important lessons about life and leadership, and in at least a few cases, those lessons will be remembered.
Chris Lowney is a former Jesuit seminarian and one-time managing director of JP Morgan & Co. He is author of “Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads.” The views expressed in this column belong to Lowney.
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