Friday, April 08, 2005

Charisma Falls Short

“The great communicator”. “A complex personality, conservative in some areas and radical in others.” “The contradictory Pope”. This is the consensus that has emerged with the death of Pope John Paul II---he achieved a “radiant public success” and he created an “unholy divide”. He was charismatic, reaching out to the people, particularly youth and the poor, but he ruled the corporation (the Catholic Church) with a “monarchical style of papal government”. In the opinion of a number of theologians and authors, the Pope unfortunately disregarded the collegiality agreed to in the 1962 Second Vatican Council. Instead, he required absolute loyalty to the party line in Rome. But, others feel that the Pope’s style in a chaotic, uncertain world was appropriate. Clearly, the views of his leadership are divided.

To continue the evidence of polarized views, the Pope as media star preached human freedom and moral opposition to war, terrorism and the death penalty. On the other hand, many expressed the view that he “leaves a demoralized priesthood, a frustrated laity, and a church in anguished, internal conflict”. His ultraconservative views on modern issues, the critics argue, created a “gated” Vatican City composed of like-minded conservatives. It appears that there are limits to charisma!

But, why do we admire charisma despite its underside? We like leaders to “walk the talk”—get out and about and connect with us. Interact. See how we are feeling. Size up the “lay of the land”. No leader can do that sitting behind a computer in an office or attending interminable meetings. The Pope traveled far and wide to meet with the ordinary folks, in particular. This enabled him to gather valuable ideas from first hand experiences, build relationships and enrich his understanding of the “front –line’ issues.

By getting out from the Vatican, the Pope also sent a message that he was an advocate. This is important to people generally with leaders. We feel more secure with a leader who seems to care about us and who is in a position to advocate for us with other powerful leaders. Our voices become his voice in helping to make a better world. It is his genuine concern for us, his comfort in an insecure world that makes him charismatic.

But then there’s “the rub”. We do expect that a leader act on the field data. We tire of the constant media outings if our voices are not translated into sound policies that reflect a balancing of competing interests. We become deflated if our calls to action fall on deaf ears and we receive “ancient answers to new questions”. Herein lies the “contradictory Pope”. The critics maintain that he chose to act on issues through his lens and that of a small inner circle. They call this an authoritarian way of leadership. Daniel Goleman, the empathy guru, would add that such a style of leadership eventually negatively impacts the culture of an organization---that style is unsustainable, in the long run.

Some may argue that it’s impossible for a leader to reconcile all the demands of his people. Better that he projects certainty and confidence, makes some tough choices. True, the clarity of certainty is important at any point in time. But, we do not like to be left out though. A prime strength of effective leaders is to engage us in dialogue in order to make the difficult decisions and to determine priorities. The missing ingredient, is that the Pope, according to the volumes of media reports since his death, did not encourage a dialogue of differences within the corporation—the church--- to assist in formulating strategy.

Thus, charisma is a tricky pathway for any leader. We know from the research on great leaders that being charismatic (a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty) is helpful but not essential. That which matters more is humility and strong personal will to engage many in a journey of contribution together. Smart strategy is an essential part of the journey emanating from the collective wisdom. Charisma is therefore earned in a different way when a leader engages all the right constituents not just a few.

Pope John Paul II used his strong personality and his love of “being on the road” to foster conversations among various world religions to promote justice, peace and solidarity. His charisma opened doors. At the same time, ironically, the critics argue, it kept important doors closed within the Catholic Church itself. It fell short of the ultimate test for moving an organization forward so that it survives and thrives in an ever-changing world.

The future is not clear for the Catholic Church as its membership is on average declining. The next Pope has significant work to do: preserve valuable traditions while adapting to modern dilemmas. It is the latter, in the critic’s opinions, that Pope John Paul II resisted balancing. On the positive side, he has set the stage and agenda for the next Pope. His priority, based on the public debate on Pope John Paul II’s legacy, will be re-balancing tradition with modernity to integrate conflicting views. This is essential to ensure that the Catholic Church continues to be a meaningful organization for many people around the world.

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