Skip to main content
managing books

Lead With Humility

By Jeffrey Krames

(Amacom, 124 pages, $17.50)

Jorge Mario Bergoglio's ascension to the papacy caught the world's imagination – the puff of white smoke beats the hyped e-mail press releases by other organizations announcing new leaders – and his activities in the days and months following drew much praise. An unknown to most of us, an obscure, retired Argentine cardinal, he seemed sure-footed in every initial step, wise in the use of symbols, and someone determined to shake up the rigid, cloistered institution he heads.

"Pope Francis shows himself to be a leader who understands that leaders lead people, not institutions," Jeffrey Krames writes in Lead with Humility. "Unlike decades ago, many of us have never witnessed authentic leadership in action – until now, with the genuineness of leadership that we see every day from Pope Francis."

This is a quickie book, short and completed just after the first year of his papacy. A former vice-president and publisher of McGraw-Hill's trade books division, Mr. Krames has edited and published more than 275 business books and written a number himself, including three on Jack Welch, the former chief executive officer of General Electric, and one on Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. secretary of defence, who lacked some of the Pope's humility in his pronouncements. Indeed, Mr. Rumsfeld at times projected confidence to the point of arrogance.

Leaders are told they must convey confidence to their flock, although studies on failed leadership have shown excessive confidence can derail executives. In Good to Great, researcher Jim Collins isolated humility, combined with an unwavering resolve, as critical to success.

So given that conundrum, the book's focus on the Pope's humility is intriguing. Mr. Krames notes that the attribute of humility has been neglected in leadership development programs. But the Pope seems to believe that authentic humility empowers leaders. "If we can develop a truly humble attitude, we can change the world," he wrote before becoming Pope.

At the moment he was first presented to the world as the church's leader, he declined to step onto the platform above the other cardinals and stayed at the same height. He has declined some of the fancy perks that come with the job, and even made a point of taking a public bus, rather than a papal motorcade, to return to the hotel he had booked for the conclave and pay his bill.

"If you are fortunate enough to lead people, never use that position for selfish reasons. Take care not to do things that signal to your direct reports and other workers or colleagues that you are above them," Mr. Krames writes.

That might include moving out of the fancy corner office to a more modest room, or even a cubicle, as several top executives have done. You can also display humility by spending corporate funds more carefully – scaling back the lavish outlays some executives pour into office parties or fancy restaurant meals.

If you're not naturally humble, neither was Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Biographer Paul Valley observed: "It is clear his decision to embrace radical humility was something of a struggle against his own personality with its dogmatic and authoritarian streaks."

With public figures, it is sometimes hard to know who the real person is and what is for the cameras. Mr. Krames notes that the Pope can play politics shrewdly and wield optics with savvy. But in this case, it was to transform the papacy – living humbly, being as close to his flock as possible, and showing a different style of leadership from his predecessors.

Even the name Francis was part of that package. St. Francis of Assisi spurned his father's wealth to follow the words of Jesus: "Possess no gold or silver or copper in your purses, no travelling bag, no sandals, no staff." Not quite the modern CEO approach.

The Pope's humility is displayed in his approach to decision-making, and his admission that in his younger days he was too impulsive and authoritarian. In an interview last year he said, "I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have yet to make a decision. That is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us to find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong."

Unfortunately, a book so early in the papacy means Mr. Krames had lean pickings in some areas, and his effort to glean 12 leadership lessons was probably half a dozen too many. As can happen in these books, the trite is celebrated as a leadership lesson – be pragmatic, for example – some of the lessons don't translate well to other posts, and a positive gloss is put on almost everything.

To his credit, however, Mr. Krames does note the Pope so far has fumbled the church's greatest battle, dealing with the sex abuse scandal, and turns that into a warning to deal with your worst problem first. The book takes about 90 minutes to read, so is no great investment of time, and is interesting, but is certainly not a classic.


In The Responsible Entrepreneur (Jossey-Bass, 208 pages, $34), consultant Carol Sanford presents four archetypes for founders to consider: realizing, reconnection, reciprocity, and regenerative entrepreneurs.

Research scientist Alec Levenson, in Employee Surveys That Work (Berrett-Koehler, 138 pages, $27.95), shows how to improve the effectiveness of those efforts.

Toronto-based business valuator Ian Campbell looks at the obstacles you might face in transferring your business to your family in 50 Hurdles: Business Transition Simplified (Transitus Publishing, 261 pages, $27).

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter