A small-town Polish boy, Karol Wojtyla, was born to a retired army officer. His mother died of kidney and heart failure, and an older brother died from scarlet fever. From a hard life in Nazi-occupied Poland, he grew up to be Pope John Paul II, the head of the Catholic Church who became the “man of the century.” 

How did such an unlikely candidate to head the Roman Catholic Church rise so quickly to such prominence? What leadership lessons can we learn from this global spiritual leader who so moved the world? 

Pope John Paul II meets with Mehmet Ali Agca. CNS photo

Leaders Are Readers. (1958): Pope Pius XII named Karol as auxiliary bishop of Krakow. By this time, Karol was a professor of ethics with two doctorate degrees. 

Leadership Lesson: Specialized knowledge is key to leadership, along with general studies. Despite the fact that Pope John Paul II had two doctorates in his field, he also studied philosophy and literature. He was a playwright and a poet. He took time to gain knowledge of the world. People are hungering and thirsting for a leader with knowledge and experience. 

Leaders Take Time to Pray and Reflect. (1946–2005): As a chaplain for university students in Krakow, Pope John Paul II went on frequent camping and skiing trips and offered counseling and mentorship to the students. On these excursions he would usually take an hour or more to be alone by himself to reflect and pray. 

Leadership Lesson: A true leader is the one who prays and reflects about himself and the realities encountered in everyday life. The moments of solitude gave Pope John Paul II a strong internal compass and knowledge of self required of great leaders. 

Leaders Are Humble. (1978): Elected pope, John Paul II became the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. He was in favor of a simple inauguration ceremony. He had a simple, plain and honest way of communicating that drew people to him. He exemplified the servant–leader role by exemplifying one of the titles of the pope: Servus Servorum Dei (Servant of the Servants of God). 

Leadership Lesson: Leadership exercised by walking around and talking with people and listening to their needs earns respect and trust. Pope John Paul II was available with open doors, seeking to understand people and encouraging dialogue. We can learn from his example by not isolating ourselves in the corner office. 

Leaders Have Heart. (1979): John Paul II visited Poland for the first time as pope and spoke to the Polish people. He spoke from his heart, from the gut, soul-to-soul, and in their language. The people of Poland saw themselves reflected in him. He encouraged them to “Be not afraid” and to not crawl like animals but to walk tall. His speech ignited the Solidarity Movement that eventually brought down the Communist regime. 

Leadership Lesson: The leader that speaks from the heart almost always wins over reason alone. John Paul II did not speak in the typical, official “visiting dignitary” tone, but he spoke from his heart, thus igniting the collective consciousness of the Polish people. If you want to win over people, risk letting down your guard and speak from the heart. 

Leaders Are Willing to Forgive. (1983): Pope John Paul II met with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk in prison. After recovering from gunshot wounds, the pope visited the gunman in prison and offered forgiveness. Later, at the pope’s request, the Italian government pardoned Agca in 2000. 

Leadership Lesson: The mark of a true leader is his willingness to forgive. It’s also a smart leadership approach in the long-term. By offering forgiveness to the person who errs, you accept his weakness. The person also will most likely remain loyal to you. 

Leaders Take Full Responsibility. (2000): In the new millennium, Pope John Paul II apologized over and over for any pain the Christian Church had inflicted on any human being during the past 2,000 years, whether it was by action or non-action, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, to the present day. He took full responsibility for his organization, the Church. 

Leadership Lesson: Leaders take full responsibility for their organization. The day that Pope John Paul II apologized and took responsibility for the sins of anti-Semitism committed by Christians, he became a truly respected global leader. To be a leader, you must take full responsibility for your actions, your team and, ultimately, for the whole organization or cause you lead.

Leaders Stand For What They Believe In. (1982–2003): Pope John Paul II was the first pope to enter a mosque and a synagogue, the first pope to visit Egypt, a pre-dominantly Muslim country, and, when he visited Auchwitz, the first pope to render homage to the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis. In March 2000, John Paul II made a historical trip to Jordan, Palestine and Israel, visiting Bethlehem, Jerusalem and even Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat along the way. 

In 2001, John Paul II was the first pope to visit Greece in 1,291 years. In Athens, Pope John Paul II met with Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church. The two leaders aired the serious differences between them and concluded by breaking an Orthodox taboo against praying with Catholics, when together they recited the Lord’s Prayer. Pope John Paul II stood for what he believed in and had the courage of his convictions. 

Leadership Lesson: Stand up for what you believe in. As a leader, Pope John Paul II was tough but flexible. His flexibility allowed him to meet famous and infamous world leaders and to address difficult issues. But he also had the inner toughness and steely resolve to break down walls and foster reconciliation. As pope and head of the Roman Catholic Church he knew his role was to unify the Church while serving as an apostle of justice and peace. He stood his ground and never wavered, even if it meant alienation. A mind that is clearly focused and single in purpose is powerful beyond measure.

The evening before Pope John Paul II died (April 2, 2005), 70,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square below the pope’s bedroom window at the Vatican. Many were young people. When the Holy Father’s aides told him of the sight, he gave them a message to deliver to the young crowd — “I have sought you out. Now you have come to me. I thank you.” Pope John Paul II was a rebel with a cause. A champion of human worth and dignity, a freedom fighter, a torchbearer for social justice, he left a lasting legacy of leadership and moral example that the world can follow.

FATHER SINGARAYAR, S.V.D., belongs to the Society of the Divine Word, Mumbai Province, India.