St. La Salle and Pope Francis I – Traits of an Effective Business Leader

This is about my reflection on the life of St. John Baptist De La Salle and the good leadership traits he exhibited when he instituted the Brothers of the Christian Schools in France that pioneered great educational reforms.  As I reflect, I will also attempt to connect his life principles and values with the present day Catholic Church leader, Pope Francis I, in celebration of his five-day visit to our country last January 15th.  Both their compassion to uplift the poor and to promote equality among men have drawn them closer to the hearts of many, especially the lowly and those marginalized by the society.

My thoughts will revolve around the following questions:

  • John Baptist de La Salle was characterized by being a Risk-taker, Innovator, Servant-leader, and a Mentor. What areas in his life did he exhibit these traits?
  • In a similar fashion, how is Pope Francis’ 21st century leadership demonstrating these beautiful traits? My intention is not to make a direct comparison of their achievements nor to critique on who has the better leadership style, but to cite concrete, real life examples of good leadership attributes both in the past and present age.
  • Finally, as a Business leader, how can I model my life based on the ideals and examples of these great leaders?

And so as a starter, I invite you to watch this film on the life and works of St. John Baptist De La Salle.

On Helping the Poor

“Our work needs it… for the poor.  There are so many of them”.  This was St. La Salle’s response to his uncle’s question on what he will do with all the money he got from selling all his inheritance.  He continued by saying that the “real wealth is the ability to think and to feel”.  He felt that the poor children in the streets of Reims were robbed not only of material possessions but of the opportunity to cultivate their ability to learn and to reason – something that seems to be available only to the upper class families of his time.  The lack of basic necessities in life and the constant struggle to survive has figuratively and literally hardened the hearts of the underprivileged that they no longer feel what it’s like “to give, to receive, to reason, (and) to share”.  I am convinced that when he uttered these words, he meant more than giving alms and breads, he wanted to open windows of opportunity and fight for equality among his little brothers.  The poor are the most vulnerable members of our society, and yet they have been blessed, for ‘theirs is the Kingdom of God’.  Therefore, by opening his heart to the little children in his time, St. La Salle has also opened the doors of the Kingdom of God to them.  As Lasallian business leaders, if we are to become agents of change in our organization or in the society as a whole, we must first become ‘agents of the Kingdom of God’.  If we are to achieve lasting transformation, it is important that we protect the vulnerable and promote equality among all.  Pope Francis could not have stated it any better during his homily in Manila Cathedral: “Only by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency, can we identify with the least of our brothers”.

Traits of a Good, Effective Leader

Do not have any anxiety about the future. 

Leave everything in God’s hands for he will take care of you.

Risk-taker.  In business parlance, risk is the uncertainty of an event occurring which may be detrimental to the existence of the business.  However, St. La Salle viewed risk not as an uncertainty but an opportunity for God to show His goodness and mercy in his life.  To ensure the continued existence of the elementary free schools he and Adrien Nyel opened in Reims, he decided to ‘risk’ everything to the Divine Providence.  He resigned his canonry in July 1683 and he distributed his fortune to the poor in the winter of 1684.  He even once said, “I must do the work of God, and if the worst should come to pass, we shall have to beg alms”.  Reliance upon Providence was therefore his way of addressing the uncertainty of the future and this has become one of the guiding principles of the Christian Schools.

Our present day Pope has also demonstrated this good trait during his young career as a leader of the largest religious institution in the world.  Known not only for breaking many church protocols, he chooses charity over luxury possessions:  he ditched the Popemobile and instead rides around in a 2008 Ford Focus hatchback, instead of moving into the luxurious papal residence, he lives in a modest apartment in the Casa Santa Marta guest house, and recently, he auctioned his Harley and donated the money to start a soup kitchen in Rome.

In my life as a professional, I was always taught not to test the depth of the water with both feet.  While it is important that we carefully weigh our options in deciding the best course to take, their examples have personally taught me another important risk factor: the Divine Providence.  In any endeavor, when faced with the uncertainty of returns, choose the greater good and the Divine Providence will produce yields beyond that which can be recorded in the books!

 If we do not change ourselves, others will do it for us.

Innovator.  Needless to say, St. La Salle founded the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools which initially provided free elementary education to the poor children in Reims and later on to several place in Paris.  But what separated them from the other schools was his innovative way of teaching.  He introduced various educational reforms which, as a matter of fact, are still being adopted by our current educational system.  To name a few:

  • Provided lessons commensurate to the capability and needs of the students.
  • Use of vernacular (local language) instead of Latin which most of the students are ‘wholly ignorant’.
  • Taught students simultaneously in a classroom instead of the one-to-one tutoring.
  • Pioneered the modern secondary instruction through a technical school to develop the mechanical skill of the students and a special garden for botany.

Our Pope was in no short of innovation and reforms as well.  Last April, Pope Francis was honored in absentia with the Adam Smith Prize, and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) was recognized as Book of the Year for innovation during the annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovations Awards. In Forbes Whitepaper entitled, Pope Francis: CEO and Epic Innovator, Irwin Kula and Craig Hatkoff discussed how the papacy has discreetly and surely changed the landscape of leadership in the Catholic Church.  They argued that like any incumbent CEO the Pope has had to confront a raft of challenges such as embattled business models, shrinking margins, etc. In response, Pope Francis decisively articulated the job of the Church—serving society’s most vulnerable. In business terms, he focused on the products and services not only from the point of view of the decreasing number of existing consumers of Catholicism, particularly in the West, but also the much larger market of non-consumers—the non-practicing Catholics and non-Catholics.

Reflecting on this, I realized that in order for me to bring positive changes to the lives of those around me, I must be sensitive to the real need at hand and have the courage to do something about it. Indeed, necessity begets innovation and innovation begets change.  In the end, I will be measured not by what I have to accomplish my goals, but by how much I have accomplished with what I have.

Inspire and lead others by encouraging them.

Servant-leader.  Servant-leadership implies that leaders primarily leads by serving others.  Throughout his life St. La Salle has demonstrated this in the many hats he had to wear:  as the head and provider for his siblings, as a brother to his Brothers, as a priest and shepherd to the poor, and as a son to his Creator.  Though superior in many aspects, he chose to live a life of humility, faith, piety, mortification, and obedience which became a living example to others.

In the article, Leadership in the Papacy: Pope Francis I, The Servant Leader, the author elucidated the kind of leader our Pope is through his actions: he celebrated mass in a prison, chose not to live in the opulent papal palace, and made clear his intention to act in a decisive manner with regards to the corruption and sexual abuse that has recently plagued Catholic priests and the Vatican. The author concluded that Pope Francis has exhibited leadership through his humility and simplicity.

In the course of history, great leaders have come and gone, but the ones that are admired the most are those who touched the lives of their constituents the most.  Those who changed the lives of others the most are the ones who served the most with the purest of heart.  By serving, we do not become weak and small, instead our actions bring positive energy capable of influencing others in what we want to achieve.

 Preach by example, and practice before the eyes of the young what you wish them to accept.

Mentor.  St.  La Salle, is not only a great teacher to his pupils, but is likewise a good mentor to his teachers.  Perceiving the teachers’ lack of training, he encouraged them and give practical lessons to them after school hours until they are properly equipped.

Pope Francis has his share of stories of being a good teacher as well.  But the one that stood out the most for me is the account given by Father Renzo De Luca in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, published last October 2013.  There he recounted his experiences as a seminarian in the early 1980s. At the time, the then Father Bergoglio was rector of the seminary, which is located just outside Buenos Aires.  Seminarians studied Monday through Friday, but instead of free time on Saturday or Sunday, Father Bergoglio had them enter poor neighborhoods.  He said that an education should not only be theoretical, but practical as well.

As a mentor-leader, it is not enough that we are always pointing at the right direction, we must also bring guidance and support to make sure that our members are looking in that same direction and are seeing the same picture.  Leadership without proper guidance is like sailing without a compass.

In conclusion, St. La Salle is the epitome of a good leader by being a risk-taker, an innovator, a servant-leader and a mentor throughout his lifetime.  It also has a striking similarity with the ideals and works of our modern-day Church Leader, Pope Francis I.  Though they lived hundreds of years apart, these gentlemen grasped the universal principles of being a good leader – principles that do not change throughout the course of time. If we are to become an effective leader, it is imperative that we center our lives to these beautiful traits and cultivate within our hearts the virtue of putting others ahead of our own interests in all things – in our own fields of work, in our communities, in the Church, and in our families.


New Advent, 18 Acts From Pope, Catholic Dialogue, Harvard Leadership Mag, Forbes Whitepaper, NC Register


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