Business leaders should have learned from Pope John Paul II

Let’s go back and take a closer look at what business leaders could – and perhaps should – have learned from a remarkable leader, Pope John Paul II.

“Be not afraid,” was one of Pope John Paul II’s favorite sayings, words that should give more leaders the courage and backbone to carry out their mission, says Laura Nash, senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and co-author of Church on Sunday, Work on Monday.

So many years after the Enron scandal broke, business remains in the throes of corporate scandal. Ethics and moral courage are among the hottest topics. This article highlights some comments from experts for some of the leadership lessons that Pope John Paul II left behind.

Of course, the pope is one tall benchmark. But one quality of a leader is an ability to stretch.


University of Southern California business professor Warren Bennis, the author of On Becoming a Leader, says he never met an exemplary CEO, university president, or another leader who hasn’t “renounced or abstained from satisfying their personal needs in serving their constituency.”

The pope was inspirational even in his own death and the way he handled it with such dignity, says Paul Argenti, director of the Tuck Leadership Forum at Dartmouth.

Be genuine

Intellect is not enough, says Sharif Khan, author of Psychology of the Hero Soul. The leader who speaks from the heart usually wins over those who rely on reason alone, he says.

Most people disagreed with the pope on one issue or another, but honesty and caring shone through, says Dartmouth’s Argenti. Genuine leaders don’t fear popular opinion, and they stick to their convictions, he says.

Stephen Covey, the author of The 8th Habit, says the pope loved people, which softened a lot of opposition to his positions. The pontiff’s warmth and human touch only added to his moral authority, Covey says.

Be courageous

The 1981 assassination attempt demonstrated grave risk, yet the pope did not curtail his world travels. His moral courage led him to question everything from communism to capitalism, and as he became ill, he exuded an inspiring aura of fearlessness, says James Strock, author of Reagan on Leadership.

He took on tough issues without regard to risk, Dartmouth’s Argenti says. He apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust; he didn’t sway from his positions on celibacy for priests and abortion.

“He stayed with his convictions,” Covey says. “He influenced people with his steadfast, stalwart consistency.”

Lead by example

The pope demonstrated empathy, trust, initiative, and self-discipline says organizational behavior professor John Slocum of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. Those are behaviors today’s business leaders can emulate, he says.

“John Paul walked the talk,” Dartmouth’s Argenti says. “He didn’t ask anything that he wouldn’t have been willing to do himself. He was a doer, not an admin guy who sat around the Vatican giving orders to bureaucrats.”

Be knowledgeable

While intellect is not enough, says author Khan, Pope John Paul II had plenty. He was once a professor of ethics, studied literature, was a playwright and a poet, had two doctoral degrees and studied theology during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

He also set aside a lot of time alone for contemplation.

“Pope John Paul focused much of his leadership internally,” says Deborah Ancona, faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center. “He was reflective and intelligent and thought about his core beliefs and the actions necessary to live those beliefs.”


The pope, too, was a great communicator, says author Strock, able to tap into both the church and latent Central European nationalism as he helped bring the Cold War to a bloodless end.

He didn’t use a “dignitary tone,” but connected to his audience by speaking from “his heart, from the gut, soul-to-soul,” author Khan says. “He encouraged (those under communism) not to crawl like animals but walk tall and be not afraid.”

Be inspirational

Pope John Paul II was inspirational right up until his death. “We have heard recently that bland leaders lead to better organizations,” Argenti says. “Most of us who teach or do research on leadership know that if you can’t inspire people and make them feel a part of something larger than themselves, you cannot be effective.”

Leaders communicate a vision bigger than one individual but allow each person to understand the importance of the role they play in making the future happen, says Payam Zamani, CEO of Reply and a member of the Baha’i faith, who says he escaped religious persecution in Iran.

“John Paul did this effectively, and his organization was over a billion Catholics,” Zamani says.

The pope allowed people to access both his laughter and his suffering, Harvard’s Nash said. “He became a living example of an extraordinary generosity of spirit and personal humility.”

“Even as he became increasingly physically infirm, Pope John Paul exuded an unmistakable inspiring aura of fearlessness,” Strock says.