Vail Daily column: Live selflessly in a selfie culture
Pope Francis uses soft power to get results. His open hand invites pilgrims to pose alongside him for selfies. Snapped photos aren’t papal self-portraits. His selfies include children and adults with debilitating illnesses or physical deformities.
Pope Francis’ round face glows like the moon. It’s reflected in smiles he receives from pilgrims he hugs. Security forces cringe when the pontiff springs from his popemobile to wash feet of poor women, including Muslims, in a surging crowd.
“As idealistic and utopian as it may sound,” notes Scott Appleby, dean of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, “he is siding with the victim, with the poor, with the detritus (refugees shoved to the sidelines) of international politics; frankly, the people who suffer from the mistakes most directly of everything from climate change and corporate exploitation of natural resources to people caught in the cross fire of war.”
Playing a humble role, the pope brokers deals on the world’s stage. When he bridged the gap between Cuba and U.S., he didn’t congratulate himself. Instead, Pope Francis attributed divine intercession for the part he played in breaking down barriers between Cuba and the United States.
“What could I do with these two (Cuba and the U.S.) who have been going on like this (with rancor and animosity) for more than 50 years?” he asked reporters who returned with him on a flight from Paraguay to Rome last July. “Then the Lord made me think of a Cardinal, and he went there and talked,” Francis humbly confessed. “We did hardly anything, only small things.”
These small things, humbly accomplished, bring big changes to the world. Leaders sold on hard power—blustery rhetoric, bigger armies, threats and coercion—find the pope is a tough competitor. He practices old-fashioned, biblical humility. The pope follows Jesus who, “being in human form … humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Pope Francis doesn’t use humility that’s gone out-of-fashion. He’s not a doormat of the universe that competitors stomp on. Nor does he hang back as others badmouth him for his alleged “leftist leanings.”
This humble pope is modest, but not in a soft way. His modesty has mettle to it. He’s open to new insights, listens to competing convictions, negates self-congratulation for the good of the whole, and anticipates surprising breakthroughs in diplomatic negotiations.
He knows the litmus test for Christians, as well as people of great character, is the measure of their humility. Such modesty isn’t a lack of self-confidence, or stuttering because we lack ability. Great humble people possess a strong feeling that their greatness isn’t owned by them because it flows through them. They glimpse traces of a divine imprint in everyone. Such leaders like the pope take chances in bridging barriers. They walk merciful paths that knock down “Don’t Trespass” signs.
Consultant Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his book “Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time,” observes how business leaders need to be smart and savvy, not good-hearted and modest. They need a dose of narcissism to survive cut-throat competition. Competitors crush humble leaders.
“Of course, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’,” notes Pfeffer. “Or the New York Times piece published on its 500th anniversary, ‘Why Machiavelli Still Matters,’ which draws from centuries of history to conclude that ‘following virtue often leads to … ruin … whereas pursuing what appears to be vice results in security and well-being.’
“Sometimes the best bosses have to lie and manipulate to save money and jobs. Often, they have to disregard concern for others. These truths may not be as inspiring as the latest wave of leadership fables, but they’re backed by social science and knowledge of contemporary organizations—and their likelier to help people to lead.”
Business leaders such as Donald Trump ditch humility and make mega-bucks that create lots of jobs, which in turn produce a roaring economy. In contrast, Pope Francis plies his trade, using humility to move mountains of injustice. He practices the Roman Catholic ethic of helping those who find it difficult to help themselves—the poor, the elderly, the sick, the lonely, the single parent families who work hard but slip into deeper debt.
It’s time to take a hard look at the influence humility’s soft power exerts. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, current Time magazine editor Nancy Gibbs wrote an essay about regarding vanity as a vice and replacing arrogance with humility.
“The problems we face are too fierce to accommodate arrogance,” she wrote. “Humility leaves room for complexity, honors honest dissent, welcomes the outlandish idea that sweeps past ideology and feeds invention. We want to reimagine the health-care system, confront climate change, save our kids from a financial avalanche. The odds are better if we come to the table assuming we don’t already have all the answers” (Time magazine, “The Age of Arrogance,” Nov. 9, 2009).
Pope Francis bets on humility; Trump on haughtiness. For God’s sake, may the better person’s nobler ethic prevail.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.