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Leadership Lessons from Pope John Paul II

by Sharif Khan


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"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 Pope; from a hard life in Nazi occupied Poland, his mother dead of kidney and heart failure, an older brother dead from scarlet fever, to 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 so moved the world? Here is a brief timeline 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 clandestinely studied theology during the oppressive Nazi occupation of Poland .

Leadership lesson: leaders are readers. Specialized knowledge is a key to leadership along with general studies. While Wojtyla had two doctorates in his field, he studied philosophy and literature, and was also a playwright and a poet. If you were to take up an hour-a-day reading in your field and apply the knowledge, within a period of five years you would become an ‘expert’ within your field. 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 would usually take an hour or more to be alone by himself to reflect, read, and pray. These moments of solitude gave him the strong internal compass and self-knowledge required of 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 "We[,]" referring to himself plainly as "I".

Wojtyla made it clear from the day he was elected that he was not impressed by the trappings and symbols of power. He had a very simple, plain, and honest way of communicating that endeared people to him. He exemplified the servant-leader role by embodying one of the titles of the Pope: Servus Servorum 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, encouraging dialogue and seeking to understand. Leadership by 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 spoke from his heart, from the gut, soul-to-soul – in their language. The Polish people 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 heart have to be married. If you want to win over people, risk letting down your guard and speak from the heart. The leader who speaks from the heart almost always wins over reason alone.


1983: Meets with assassin Ali Agca in prison.

Just two years after the assassination attempt on his life by gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, the Pope visited Agca in prison and offered forgiveness. (Much later, in 2000, the Italian government granted clemency to Agca on the Pope’s request).

Leadership lesson: leaders are willing to forgive. We are all fallible human beings. The mark of a true leader is a willingness to forgive. It’s also a smart leadership strategy in the long term. While there’s no excuse to keep someone who consistently fails to learn from their mistakes, the boss who fires an employee for making a big mistake is often mistaken for doing so. After all, there’s always the risk that the next person hired could potentially make the same disastrous mistake. But by offering forgiveness to the person who errs, that person is unlikely to repeat the same mistake, and will most likely remain fiercely loyal.


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

In 1979, Wojtyla was the first pope to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland . 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 committed 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 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 can’t do both. To be a leader, you must take full responsibility for your actions, your team, and ultimately the whole organization or cause that you lead.

Uncommon Leadership

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

Despite criticism from many corners on the controversial issues he supported, Wojtyla never backed down. He stood for what he believed in and had the courage of conviction. As a leader, he was tough, but flexible. His flexibility allowed him to meet both famous and infamous world leaders and address difficult 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 strong and 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, a torch bearer for social justice, he left a lasting legacy of leadership and moral example that the world can follow. According to biographer George Weigel, asked once if he feared retaliation from government officials, he replied, "I’m not afraid of them. They are afraid of me." Indeed, he relayed a message to the world that will echo through eternity: "Be not afraid!"


Sharif Khan (; is a motivational speaker, freelance writer, coach, and author of "Psychology of the Hero Soul," an inspirational book on awakening the hero within and developing people’s leadership potential. To contact Sharif directly, call: (416) 417-1259.


Copyright 2005 by Sharif Khan