Improving Performance

I try to learn what I can from great leaders, and we lost a giant of a leader on April 2. OK, I admit it — I’m Catholic, and I even practice my religion. Even so, John Paul II was respected, and even loved, not just by his Catholic following, but by members of other faiths, Christian and non-Christian, around the world. He was the ultimate leader and manager.

Fluent in eight languages, he was highly charismatic, visiting his faithful and others in over 120 countries. I’ve been fortunate to work in 12 foreign countries, but I can tell you few things warm an audience like a foreigner addressing them in their own language.

Unlike many CEOs, whose jobs are to get us to buy their products and/or services, most of which we really want, John Paul’s job was to try to get us to do what was right, which is often not what we want. Unlike our democracy, churches are supposed to do the will of God, which is often not the will of the people.

We forget that Moses never got a chance to negotiate the Ten Commandments. John Paul had the courage to be faithful to what he thought his God wanted, even if it made him unpopular in some circles. Contrast that with political and business leaders who decide their positions based on the latest Gallup Poll.

It’s tough enough convincing us to do what we want — convincing us to do what we should do is an even bigger challenge. I’ve always found it amusing that people, who tried to intimidate John Paul, were amazed at their lack of success. If he wasn’t intimidated living under the terrorism of Hitler and Stalin, why would he be intimidated by those against his teachings?

Nothing great was ever accomplished without vision and a fair amount of stick-to-it-iveness. Whether it was Abraham Lincoln saving the union, Henry Ford developing the assembly line, Mahatma Gandhi freeing India or Lee Iacocca saving Chrysler, great leaders struggle against overwhelming numbers of naysayers.

The day Iacocca went to Congress to get the loan guarantees, nobody was willing to give him more than a snowball’s chance in hell. In fact, everybody was laughing at him, and the comedians were having a field day, but they were wrong. It took him only a couple of hours to convince Congress, and he got everything he wanted.

Of course, some of what John Paul was selling may not pay off until the next life, so it’s a really tough sell to the now generation. If we have to wait for the benefits, we’re often not interested. Additionally, he couldn’t modify his product to reflect our changing desires. God, as we understand Him, doesn’t change. He’s the same, “yesterday, today and forever.”

John Paul was criticized for “being out of step with the American church” on issues like contraception, abortion, women priests and the like. No doubt, there’s a significant decline in church attendance, but I wonder if the decline would have been even worse had we not had such an effective leader.

These are very controversial issues, and despite their strong popularity, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out he was right when I get to the pearly gates.

Great leaders

We forget the majority isn’t always right. In fact, Henry Ford was a very small minority when he started his assembly line. So was Iacocca that day on Capital Hill. Popularity is hardly ever a determinant of the right or best way to do things. Those of us who don’t have inspiring visions have to be thankful for those who do.

John Paul II visited Boston in 1979 shortly after becoming pope and said Mass on the Common. Someone had given me a ticket, and I wasn’t thrilled, as the forecast was for heavy rain. I was drenched and cold, and although there were many priests giving communion, I managed to get in his line. As I received from him, I could feel his presence and somehow knew he was no ordinary person.

He was a tireless advocate for the poor and forgotten, and although that doesn’t sound like much of a business goal, Henry Ford made a lot of money building cars the average person could afford. Wal-Mart didn’t become the largest retailer in the world serving the rich. Many businesses serving the poor are exploitive; imagine how much more successful they would be if they actually took their customers’ interests to heart.

If you’re not a John Paul fan, there are plenty of other great leaders from whom to pick, but don’t dismiss him too quickly. With over 2 million people attending his funeral, he must have done more than a few things right.

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States as well as in 12 nations in Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 898-1871; fax 894-6539;;

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