For subscribers only

Leadership Lessons from Pope John Paul II

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. - Martin Luther King Jr.

“Heroes are rebels with a cause. Rebels because they challenge the traditional ways of thinking and refuse to follow the herd. They have a cause, a vision, that’s larger than life.”– Sharif Khan, author of Psychology of the Hero Soul.

From a small-town Polish boy born to a retired army officer to become Pope, from a hard life in Nazi-occupied Poland, his mother died of kidney and heart failure, an older brother died from scarlet fever, to become quite possibly man of the century. How did such an unlikely candidate for the head of the Roman Catholic Church rise so quickly to such prominence? What leadership lessons can we learn from this global spiritual leader who moved the world? Here is a brief timeline snapshot of Karol Josef Wojtyla’s exemplary leadership:


1958: Pope Pius XII names Wojtyla auxiliary bishop of Krakow.

By this time, Wojtyla was a professor of ethics and had two doctorate degrees; he had studied theology clandestinely during the oppressive Nazi occupation of Poland.

Leadership lesson: leaders are readers. Specialized knowledge is key to leadership, along with general studies. While Wojtyla had two doctorates in his field, he studied philosophy and literature and was a playwright and poet. If you were to take an hour a day reading up in your field and apply the knowledge within five years, you would become an expert within your area. People are hungering and thirsting for a leader with knowledge and experience.

In Wojtyla’s case, he took the time to gain knowledge of the world, himself, and beyond. As a chaplain for university students in Krakow, he used to go on frequent camping and kayaking trips and offered counseling and mentorship to the students. On these excursions, he usually took an hour or more to be alone to reflect, read, and pray. These moments of solitude gave him a solid internal compass and knowledge of self-required of all great leaders.


1978: Elected Pope John Paul II becoming the 264th pope and first non-Italian pope in 456 years; refuses formal papal coronation in favor of a simple inauguration ceremony and chooses not to use the royal plural. We refer to ourselves plainly as I.

Wojtyla was not impressed by the trappings of power and its symbols and made that clear from the day he was chosen, Pope. He had straightforward, direct, and honest communication that endeared people to him. He exemplified the servant-leader role by embodying one of the titles of the Pope: Servos Servo rum Dei (Servant of the Servants of God).

Leadership lesson: leaders are humble. We can learn from Wojtyla’s example by not isolating ourselves in the corner office or ivory tower with each successive promotion, hiding behind closed doors and a sea of fancy titles, diplomas, awards, certificates, and press clippings.

Like Wojtyla, we can make ourselves available to our people with open doors, looking to understand and encouraging dialogue. Leadership by walking around, talking to people, and listening to their needs earns respect and trust.


1979: Visits his homeland, Poland, for the first time as Pope and speaks to his people, inspiring Solidarity, the first independent labor movement in the Soviet bloc.

Risking his life against the totalitarian Communist Regime in Poland, Wojtyla returned to his homeland and did not speak in the typical, official visiting dignitary tone. He said soul-to-soul in their language from his heart, from the gut. The people of Poland saw themselves reflected in him; he encouraged them to not crawl like animals but walk tall and be not afraid. The crowd went wild, and a flame of rebellion and counter-revolution was lit in the collective consciousness of the Polish people, sparking the Solidarity movement for independence and freedom that eventually toppled the Communist Regime.

Leadership lesson: leaders have heart. Intellect is not enough; both head and spirit must be married. If you want to win over people, risk letting down your guard and speaking from the heart. The leader that speaks from the heart always wins over reason alone.


1983: Meets with assassin Ali Agca in prison.

Just two years after the assassination, try on his life by the shooter, Mehmet Ali Agca. After months of painful recovery, the Pope visited Agca in prison and offered forgiveness. (Much later, in 2000, the Italian government granted amnesty to Agca, on the Pope’s request).

Leadership lesson: leaders are willing to forgive. We are all fallible human beings that make mistakes. The mark of a true leader is their willingness to forgive. It is also an intelligent leadership strategy in the long term. At the same time, there is no excuse to keep someone who consistently does not learn from their mistakes, the boss that fires an employee for making a big mistake is often mistaken for doing so. There is always the risk that the next person hired could potentially make the same disastrous mistake. But by offering forgiveness to the person that errs, that person is unlikely to repeat that same mistake and will remain fiercely loyal to you.


2000: Offers a day of apology for sins committed by members of the Catholic Church over the centuries; visits Israel and pays homage to the victims of the Holocaust.

Wojtyla was the first pope to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1979, and later in 2000, he visited Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem in remembrance of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, praying for reconciliation between Christians and Jews and apologizing for the sin of anti-Semitism by Christians.

The day that former U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, took full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco was the day he became a leader. The day that Wojtyla apologized and took responsibility for the sins of anti-Semitism committed by Christians was the day he became a truly respected global leader.

Leadership lesson: leaders take full responsibility for their organization. Blaming and complaining is the mark of a loser. We can make excuses, or we can make progress, but we certainly cannot do both. To be a leader, you must take full responsibility for your actions, your team, and the whole organization or cause you to lead.

Uncommon Leadership

1982 2003: Receives PLO leader Arafat; Meets Gorbachev as the first pope to meet with a Kremlin Chief; visits Cuba and meets with Castro; becomes the first pope in history to enter a mosque.

Despite criticism from corners on the controversial issues he supported, Wojtyla was not one to ever back down. He stood for what he believed in and had the courage of conviction. As a leader, he was rigid but flexible. His flexibility allowed him to meet famous and infamous world leaders and address complex issues that made him unpopular in certain circles. 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.

Leadership lesson: leaders stand for what they believe in. Leadership is not about winning a popularity contest. Stand up for what you believe in. Be firm. A divided mind is weak; a united mind, clear and singular in purpose, is powerful beyond measure.

Legacy: Rebel with a Cause

1920 2005: A legacy of leadership.

Pope John Paul II was a rebel with a cause. A champion of human worth and dignity, a freedom fighter, and a torch bearer for social justice, he left a legacy of leadership and moral example that the world can follow. Asked once if he feared retaliation from government officials, he replied (according to biographer George Weigel), I am not afraid of them. They are so scared of me. Indeed, he relayed a message to the world that will echo through eternity: Be not afraid!

Subscriber content only

To access this content and all of our unlimited content subscribe now