The week@work Leadership lessons from Pope Francis, John Boehner and Martin Winterkorn

During this week@work three leaders representing the religious, legislative and corporate sectors, demonstrated their leadership strengths and weaknesses on the global stage.

Pope Francis on a visit to the United States, challenged national and world leaders to take the lead on major global issues. One of those leaders, John Boehner, internalized the advice and resigned his position as Speaker of the House and Member of Congress the following day. At the same time as the Pope was demanding action on the environment, Martin Winterkorn, the CEO of Volkswagen resigned as his company became the latest example of corporate fraud at the expense of ‘our home’.

On Friday, Pope Francis addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations urging world leaders to provide the essential minimum: lodging, labor and land as well as education, religious freedom and civil rights. It was his use of a quote from the poem, ‘El Gaucho Martin Fierro’ which could be easily applied to the competitive atmosphere of corporate life.

“…government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labor, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and other civil rights.”

“War is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment. If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples.”

El Gaucho Martín Fierro, a classic of literature in my native land, says: “Brothers should stand by each other, because this is the first law; keep a true bond between you always, at every time – because if you fight among yourselves, you’ll be devoured by those outside”.

The Pope once again communicated the urgency to protect the environment. “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.” Simultaneously, the global story of Volkswagen violating emission standards by using sophisticated software in diesel models to ‘trick’ environmental testing was made public.

“In 2012, a group of researchers at West Virginia University won a $50,000 grant from the International Council on Clean Transportation to do performance testing on clean diesel cars. Arvind Thiruvengadam, a research assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering, told NPR this week that the team was merely excited do the research—which involved driving the clean diesel cars outside the lab—and write a journal paper based on the data. They never expected that they would discover one of the biggest frauds in automotive history.

When Thiruvengadam and his colleagues tested Volkswagen’s clean diesel cars, they found discrepancies up to 35 times the expected emissions levels. The researchers suspected cheating, but couldn’t be sure. David Carder, another researcher on the West Virginia University team, told Reuters that the fallout at hand is surprising because this data was made public over a year and a half ago.”

Are you following this? In 2012 – that’s three years ago – academics accidentally discovered one of the biggest frauds in automotive history. And yet, in those three years, the CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn maintains he didn’t have a clue.

“I am shocked by the events of the past few days. Above all, I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group.

As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the Supervisory Board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group. I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrong doing on my part.

Volkswagen needs a fresh start – also in terms of personnel. I am clearing the way for this fresh start with my resignation. I have always been driven by my desire to serve this company, especially our customers and employees. Volkswagen has been, is and will always be my life.”

Leading by resignation. Nice try. It’s the culture that defines behavior and that’s set at the top. Whatever the vision Mr. Winterkorn communicated to shareholders, the means to the end derailed the company and the reputation of a respected brand. His accountability ended with an exit. Not the best lesson in corporate governance.

On Friday morning, as the Pope was about to address the United Nations, word leaked that the Republican Speaker of the House of Representative, John Boehner was resigning.

“My first job as speaker is to protect the institution,” Mr. Boehner said. “It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.”

Here is the perfect example of ‘fighting among yourselves to the advantage of your outside adversaries’. Apparently moderate, constructive, cooperation is not valued in the legislative branch of the U.S. government. When the folks at the extremes have the ability to create distraction and avoid the real work in their job description, is it the role of a leader to step aside to protect the institution?

What are the leadership lessons of this week@work? If you follow the lead of Pope Francis and are a bit more humble, listen to your constituency and lead by example you get it. If you are not paying attention, you will end up with a legacy of scandal. In the end, no matter how hard you try to lead, when values disconnect, it’s time to go.

The topic of leadership was also in the air with the publication of the Inc. magazine annual survey of executives in the fastest growing private companies, ‘Inc. 500 CEOs are more concerned with managing growth than with politics

“Which attribute is most accurate in describing your success? See opportunities – 40%, Persistence – 38%, Leadership ability – 10%, Salesmanship – 4% and Understand basic business principles – 8%.”

Seventy percent are in favor of raising the minimum wage.”

These CEOs are almost unanimous in their positive view of economic opportunity, but still struggle with leadership skills. Among the shortcomings: patience, the ability to communicate consistently, and manage well.

I think it’s safe to say that we will not be Pope. And most of us will not sit in the C Suite or behind the President during the State of the Union Address. But in our corner of influence, we can demonstrate the traits of a strong leader: humility, empathy, confidence, consistent communication, integrity, and fairness. And bonus points if you are a leader who can employ a quote from 19th century literature to make your point.

‘The Saturday Read’ Pope Francis’ Speech to the Congress of the United States of America

On Thursday morning Pope Francis addressed the a joint session of the 114th US Congress. He challenged his audience to address issues of immigration, climate change, poverty, family and to abolish the death penalty. Throughout his delivery he demonstrated his quiet but firm leadership style and structured his remarks to reflect American values in the stories of four American careers.

‘The Saturday Read’ this week is the text of Pope Francis’ congressional speech.

“My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice — some at the cost of their lives — to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.

I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.”

“Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”

He included remarks that provided insight to his view of leadership.

“It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue — a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons — new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

But, as noted by NPR, the pope omitted a section in the text challenging the influence of money in American politics.

“A potentially controversial sentence in the prepared text of Pope Francis’ address went unspoken when he delivered the speech to Congress.

The line appears to challenge the dominant role of money in American politics.

A paragraph in the prepared text quotes briefly from the Declaration of Independence — the passage on self-evident truths — and then says, “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”

The paragraph defines politics in terms of the “compelling need to live as one” and building a common good that “sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”

The text is written to be read. It is a model of how to craft a message: connect with an audience, employ storytelling to illustrate that message, and insure individuality shines through.