Pope to PM Cameron: “Are you troubled by something?”

The following conversation between the Pope and UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron is not quite as far-fetched as you might think.

Cameron: “Hello your Holiness.  It’s great to have these few private moments together, especially as I’ve an important question I want to ask you.”

The Pope:  “Speak my son; I’m interested in everything you have to say.”

Cameron: “Well, your Holiness, I’ve read reports of many hundreds of thousands of people returning to the Church under your leadership– mainly people who have previously drifted away.”1

The Pope: “True! My colleagues tell me we’ve a huge number of believers coming back to the church. It’s clearly God’s will.”

Cameron: “Maybe. But I believe it’s also something you’re doing as a leader. I’ve even heard it’s being called the Francis Effect!”

The Pope: “Do I detect you’re personally troubled by something?”

Cameron: Right! You see while you’ve been gaining followers, I’ve been losing them. Frankly it’s really worrying. How do I create the Cameron Effect?” 2

The Pope and David Cameron both lead organisations reliant on attracting supporters for their ultimate survival. Their personal effectiveness or otherwise can partly be judged by whether people feel drawn to their leadership. There is no more salutary metric than joiners and leavers.

As a new leader the Pope is reportedly pulling in followers while Cameron is losing them. So what are these two important leaders doing to produce such different results?

The Pope has a principled message of simplicity and rejecting opulent trappings. It has clearly resonated strongly with many people. Apart from pursuing this vision through modelling the desired behaviour he is apparently sorting out the church’s self-destructive administration. It suggests a grasp of reality lost on his predecessors.

In contrast, Cameron seems to have constant difficulty showing he is principled. Perhaps it stems from his earlier incarnation as an expert on spin and PR.

Being principled is an essential quality that defines genuine leadership. For example, in Cameron’s case, his failure in opposition to face down the destructive forces within his party over the EU has come back to haunt his leadership. Similarly, his reaction to the excessive surveillance story has been equally lacking in leadership qualities—defending what is increasingly becoming indefensible.

Leaders who demonstrate a strong grasp of reality while also demonstrating their own moral compass in action attract followers. Sometimes this leadership amounts to setting a tone, giving a principled lead to others over whom you may have no direct control.

For example, Michael Joffe, professor of economics at Imperial College has publicly warned that his fellow lecturers are “presenting things that are known to be untrue” to preserve theories that claim to show how the economy works.

Economics students too have found their academic leaders lacking. Some have recently formed a network called Rethinking Economics in protest at being “being force-fed neoclassical mumbo jumbo”. 3

By speaking out Joffe is giving an important moral and intellectual lead to his profession. However, it will also doubtless upset many of his more conventional colleagues, whose departments continue to teach outdated models and theories that do not reflect the real world.

When leaders let their principles drive their actions they have a significant impact on followers or potential followers. It takes a mix of courage, insight and sheer persistence to be a principled leader. Certainly Cameron and the Pope have much to discuss.

  1. Francis Effect sees Italians flocking back to church, J. Hooper, Guardian 11th November 2013
  2. YouGov poll for Queen Mary, University of London, Sussex University and the McDougall Trust pressure group. July 2013
  3. L. Syal, Rethinking Economics, Real World Economic Review, Nov 5 2013


Andrew Leigh is author of Ethical Leadership: Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Business Culture, (Kogan Page 2013)

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