The Pope and the Neuroscientists

by Didier Marlier on Thursday April 11th, 2013

At the age of 16, I wrote to Pope Paul VI, to ask him how, in his mind, a supposedly God Almighty, moved by Unconditional Love could coexist with a world where woman were raped, children sacrificed and men tortured. As I received no reply, I encouraged His Holiness to join me in leaving Religion and start doing something useful for mankind. That letter wasn’t more successful than the others but that is when I made the decision to quit the Catholic Church and become the Agnostic I am now. I therefore should not be suspected to be a “Jesus Freak” such as the one wonderfully well described in the clip of Phil Collins & Genesis…

But… I am growing a sincere admiration for the recently chosen Pope Francis (much more than for the conservative Cardinal he was). After the initial moment of surprise (I understand Jorge Mario Bergoglio wasn’t part of the expected “would be Popes”) he seems to draw endless positive comments about the way he took charge.

Neuroscientists explain that there are four “ways” to talk directly to the emotional part of the brain, without going through the, sometimes, cynical, overcritical rational part of it: Symbols, gestures, metaphors and stories. Let us review how the Pope is working with those levers as this is something every business leader should know and master:

  • Symbols: From the start, Pope Francis has gently but firmly rejected all the symbols of an opulent and distant Church. The gold ring was replaced by silver, the driver in an armored car by walks with the public, or the usual Palace of the Popes by a simpler home. And these are just a few…
  • Gesture: A powerful moment in the Catholic Church Easter celebration is “Maundy or Holy Thursday’s” washing of the feet. In the Christian tradition, before the Last Supper, Jesus, in a sign of humility and love, washed the feet of the Apostles, reminding them to “love each other as I have loved you”. Pope Francis “broke with tradition by going to a youth detention center in Rome, rather than the city’s chief cathedral, where he washed the feet of a dozen young detainees. Among the group were two women and two Muslims.”, following a CNN report.
  • Metaphor: Saint Francis of Assisi’s story matches well with the declared intention of its new leader to make it “a humbler Church at the service of the humbles”. Jorge Mario took the name of Francis as a clear reminder of this metaphor.
  • Stories: The fact that Pope Francis seems to act in accordance with his words (the good old “walk the talk”) has seen quantities of stories emerging, forming already what will surely be “the Legend of Pope Francis”: the Pope that humbly went paying is hotel bill upon being elected, the one who sat at the back of a church to pray with the faithful, etc…

Whatever our spiritual or religious beliefs, Pope Francis is an great example for us, in business, when it comes to leading through Pathos. Too often, hard nose leaders refrain from using the emotional lever by fear of exposing themselves, appearing vulnerable or inappropriate. But, on the contrary, it seems that 77 years old Pope Francis knows how to take calculated risks, projects the image of a very strong and determined leader and strikes a perfect balance between emotions and reason.

As a Brazilian priest, friend of mine said: “let us now hope that those who chose him will unconditionally follow him…”

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