The 15 Diseases Of Leadership, According To Pope Francis

Published September 28, 2015

In a message last year, Pope Francis warned about leadership diseases and temptations, which can dangerously weaken the effectiveness of any organization. Gary Hamel (TGLS 2009) translated his words into corporate-speak for this article in the Harvard Business Review. In light of the Pope’s visit to the United States last week, we thought it was worth another look.

Pope Francis has made no secret of his intention to radically reform the administrative structures of the Catholic Church, which he regards as insular, imperious, and bureaucratic. He understands that in a hyper-kinetic world, inward-looking and self-obsessed leaders are a liability.

Last year, just before Christmas, the Pope addressed the leaders of the Roman Curia — the Cardinals and other officials who are charged with running the church’s byzantine network of administrative bodies. The Pope’s message to his colleagues was blunt. Leaders are susceptible to an array of debilitating maladies, including arrogance, intolerance, myopia, and pettiness. When those diseases go untreated, the organization itself is enfeebled. To have a healthy church, we need healthy leaders.

Through the years, I’ve heard dozens of management experts enumerate the qualities of great leaders. Seldom, though, do they speak plainly about the “diseases” of leadership. The Pope is more forthright. He understands that as human beings we have certain proclivities — not all of them noble. Nevertheless, leaders should be held to a high standard, since their scope of influence makes their ailments particularly infectious.

The Catholic Church is a bureaucracy: a hierarchy populated by good-hearted, but less-than-perfect souls. In that sense, it’s not much different than your organization. That’s why the Pope’s counsel is relevant to leaders everywhere.

With that in mind, I spent a couple of hours translating the Pope’s address into something a little closer to corporate-speak. (I don’t know if there’s a prohibition on paraphrasing Papal pronouncements, but since I’m not Catholic, I’m willing to take the risk.)

Herewith, then, the Pope (more or less):

____________________

The leadership team is called constantly to improve and to grow in rapport and wisdom, in order to carry out fully its mission. And yet, like any body, like any human body, it is also exposed to diseases, malfunctioning, infirmity. Here I would like to mention some of these “[leadership] diseases.” They are diseases and temptations which can dangerously weaken the effectiveness of any organization.

  1. The disease of thinking we are immortal, immune, or downright indispensable, [and therefore] neglecting the need for regular check-ups. A leadership team, which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body. A simple visit to the cemetery might help us see the names of many people who thought they were immortal, immune, and indispensable! It is the disease of those who turn into lords and masters, who think of themselves as above others and not at their service. It is the pathology of power and comes from a superiority complex, from a narcissism which passionately gazes at its own image and does not see the face of others, especially the weakest and those most in need. The antidote to this plague is humility; to say heartily, “I am merely a servant. I have only done what was my duty.”
  1. Another disease is excessive busyness.It is found in those who immerse themselves in work and inevitably neglect to “rest a while.” Neglecting needed rest leads to stress and agitation. A time of rest, for those who have completed their work, is necessary, obligatory and should be taken seriously: by spending time with one’s family and respecting holidays as moments for recharging.
  1. Then there is the disease of mental and [emotional] “petrification.”It is found in leaders who have a heart of stone, the “stiff-necked;” in those who in the course of time lose their interior serenity, alertness and daring, and hide under a pile of papers, turning into paper pushers and not men and women of compassion. It is dangerous to lose the human sensitivity that enables us to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice! Because as time goes on, our hearts grow hard and become incapable of loving all those around us. Being a humane leader means having the sentiments of humility and unselfishness, of detachment and generosity.
  1. The disease of excessive planning and of functionalism.When a leader plans everything down to the last detail and believes that with perfect planning things will fall into place, he or she becomes an accountant or an office manager. Things need to be prepared well, but without ever falling into the temptation of trying to eliminate spontaneity and serendipity, which is always more flexible than any human planning. We contract this disease because it is easy and comfortable to settle in our own sedentary and unchanging ways.
  1. The disease of poor coordination.Once leaders lose a sense of community among themselves, the body loses its harmonious functioning and its equilibrium; it then becomes an orchestra that produces noise: its members do not work together and lose the spirit of camaraderie and teamwork. When the foot says to the arm: ‘I don’t need you,’ or the hand says to the head, ‘I’m in charge,’ they create discomfort and parochialism.
  1. There is also a sort of “leadership Alzheimer’s disease.”It consists in losing the memory of those who nurtured, mentored and supported us in our own journeys. We see this in those who have lost the memory of their encounters with the great leaders who inspired them; in those who are completely caught up in the present moment, in their passions, whims and obsessions; in those who build walls and routines around themselves, and thus become more and more the slaves of idols carved by their own hands.
  1. The disease of rivalry and vainglory.When appearances, our perks, and our titles become the primary object in life, we forget our fundamental duty as leaders—to “do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than ourselves.” [As leaders, we must] look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others.
  1. The disease of existential schizophrenia.This is the disease of those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive emotional emptiness, which no [accomplishment or] title can fill. It is a disease, which often strikes those who are no longer directly in touch with customers and “ordinary” employees, and restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality, with concrete people.
  1. The disease of gossiping, grumbling, and back-biting.This is a grave illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a person, making him become a “sower of weeds” and in many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of colleagues. It is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the courage to speak out directly, but instead speak behind other people’s backs. Let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip!
  2. The disease of idolizing superiors.This is the disease of those who court their superiors in the hope of gaining their favor. They are victims of careerism and opportunism; they honor persons [rather than the larger mission of the organization]. They think only of what they can get and not of what they should give; small-minded persons, unhappy and inspired only by their own lethal selfishness. Superiors themselves can be affected by this disease, when they try to obtain the submission, loyalty and psychological dependency of their subordinates, but the end result is unhealthy complicity.

For the last five diseases the list, you can go to the original article here.

About the Author
Gary Hamel

Gary Hamel

Director

Management Innovation eXchange

Gary Hamel is one of the world’s most influential and iconoclastic business thinkers, building an impassioned case for reinventing management. He has worked with leading companies across the globe and is a sought-after management speaker. Hamel has been on the faculty of the London Business School for more than 30 years and is the director of the Management Innovation eXchange. Hamel has written numerous articles for the Harvard Business Review and is the most reprinted author in the Review’s history. His landmark books include The Future of Management and What Matters Now.

Years at GLS 2009

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