Pope Francis: A Model of Leadership and Management at Catholic Institutions and a Guide for Senior Student Affairs Officers

Father Maher authored a chapter for an Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities book on student affairs in higher education. The book, compiled by Dr. Michael Galligan-Stierle, is titled Student Life in Catholic Higher Education: Advancing Good Practice.

A faculty colleague from Niagara University’s College of Business Administration recently shared with me a piece from the Harvard Business Review in which Pope Francis was referred to, in a positive manner, as a manager and leader. In my ten years of reading the periodical, I cannot recall a pope ever being referenced in such a way.

People often point to Pope Francis’s adept understanding of symbols and, more so, his use of these symbols to effectively advance values, dialogue, and mutual understanding. Frequently lost, however, is Pope Francis’s managerial ability, the day-to-day work and ministry in which he seeks to move the Catholic Church forward by embracing its traditions and seeking appropriate relevance and fidelity to teaching and impact.

In his book, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, O.M., notes that authentic spirituality must address the “bread and butter” issue of human life. From my perspective, I surmise that Pope Francis is seeking to link the Catholic Church’s faith and fidelity in Christ to the most vexing human matters of our time, those that may be considered the “bread and butter” issues of the 21st century.

University leaders and managers can benefit from Pope Francis’s example by developing a sense of living spirituality among the student affairs sector.  I suggest that this can be accomplished by reflecting on three concepts: a spirituality of accompaniment, a spirituality of administration, and a spirituality of the academy and workplace.

Several years ago, I was asked by the Vincentian provincial to participate in a project that facilitated the sharing of some of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission’s endowment with the six poorest provinces within the worldwide Vincentian community. I was assigned to work with the Province of Indonesia to help it determine how the gifts would be utilized. Our first objective was to establish endowed funds. The second task was to purposely direct those funds in ways that aligned with our Vincentian charism, such as funding works for people living in poverty and supporting education of the clergy and lay ecclesial leaders.

I spent two weeks on the island of Java, Indonesia, visiting Vincentian houses and ministries. As I was departing the country, the provincial at the time, Fr. Sad Budianto, C.M., walked with me to my gate at the airport and then proceeded to wait with me until my plane arrived. Numerous times I suggested that it would be appropriate for him to carry on with his day, since I was an experienced traveler and knew he was very busy.

Gently, Fr. Budianto would say, “I will accompany you.” Those four words remain with me today, and when I find myself too focused on completing comparatively menial tasks, I am reminded to accompany the people I am seeking to serve. Similarly, Pope Francis has challenged priests, bishops, deacons, sister, brothers, and lay church leaders to be present for those who need us most. Extending this into Catholic colleges and universities, students should not only feel the impact of our policies, programs, and services, but also feel the power of our presence.

Senior student affairs officers must make it their aim to cultivate a working spirituality of accompanying students throughout their four-year journeys, which are replete with many wonderful blessings and personal development challenges.

College campuses, by their very layout, make it possible to conduct most student affairs meetings behind closed doors. Yet, while this may occasionally be necessary, I believe that Pope Francis has raised the bar for leaders at Catholic institutions to be accessible to people, accompanying them with a dynamic and regular presence.

As a former senior student affairs officer, I worked hard to be present on campus by attending various programs and events. In addition, I strived to be present in the daily lives of students without intruding, the opportunities of which may arise from eating in the dining hall, having coffee in public areas and, when appropriate, meeting with staff in spaces that allowed for student interaction. My experiences taught me that the policies, programs, and services of the division were positively impacted because of my regular contact with students, faculty, administrators, and staff.

It is critical for senior student affairs officers to construct a culture of accompanying students. Many individuals who work in the sector do this quite well; they are excited by the prospect of engaging students. By setting a proper example of accompanying others, leaders will make it part of the fabric of the culture of their student affairs sectors to accompany students on their journeys through this pivotal juncture in their lives.

When we develop a culture of accompaniment, we help students grow in freedom and responsibility, walking with them as they seek to progress in their search for truth, beauty, love, justice, and mercy. Such an approach calls us back to the core of our work, to help students embrace and seek to develop themselves academically, personally, socially, and spiritually. Senior student affairs officers need to view their offices as the doors to initiating engagement and accompaniment.

A spirituality of administration is another tenet that must be reflected by senior student affairs professionals at Catholic colleges and universities. At the core of this concept resides the belief that administration is a labor of servant leadership that allows the Catholic and student development missions to flourish.

In some respects, there is mundane character to this work, requiring discipline and regular patterns of committed work. In many instances, this is work that goes largely unseen and occupies a formidable time commitment. Some commentators note that while Pope Francis so clearly understands and embraces the power of personal and public symbols, he is also a deeply dedicated administrator. It is observed that he spends much of his morning and other parts of his day reviewing reports and fulfilling the often thankless tasks of reading, studying, and preparing for meetings. Such an approach recognizes that a spirituality of administration seeks not to make administration its end; rather, in the words of St. Paul in the letter of Timothy, to truth, beauty, and God’s spirit to flourish. 

I have discovered elements of spirituality of administration during my time as a senior student affairs officer and, now, as a university president. The following are some concrete ways that I have found this spirituality of administration to be life-giving:

First, surround yourself with immensely gifted people, professionals who have expertise and specialized knowledge that you do not possess. In my years serving as Vice President of Student Affairs, I surrounded myself with people who had great proficiency in student wellness and counseling, residence life, career services, student programing, pluricultural issues, and other specialized areas. I often learned much from them, and such an approach allowed them to utilize their expertise. Rest assured, your authority as a vice president will be strengthened, not weakened.

Second, challenge yourself and those you supervise to a culture of excellence and servant leadership. Lead by example in your commitment to excellence, and allow others to see, in your administration, that no task is beneath you.

Third, recruit and hire student affairs professionals who seek the opportunity to fulfill their personal goals in congruence with our Catholic mission. Throughout my career, I have been edified by the commitment to mission evidenced by my colleagues, finding at times my own commitment to mission paling in comparison. The greatest gift you can provide others seeking careers in student affairs is to present a spirituality of administration that unlocks the beauty of the gift of administration to advance our mission of student affairs and Catholicity.

Do not be threatened by the gifts and expertise of those you supervise. I have witnessed instances where a sector was held back simply because the lead administrator was threatened by the expertise, creativity, and giftedness of direct reports. Harnessing the collective gifts of the people around you will allow your sector to function at far greater heights. Challenge yourself to a spirituality of administration that empowers others in the mission of student affairs to attain outcomes facilitated by you, but for which you receive no credit. That which embodies transcendent and eternal values is the highest level of spirituality of administration.

Finally, in his early work on the seven habits of highly successful people, the late Stephen Covey encouraged his audience to visualize their funeral. The most pressing question Covey raised centered on what would be said about you at the end of your life. It is likely that such a practice is directly related to the philosophy of beginning with the end in mind. Translating that to student affairs, ask yourself as a senior officer: When I leave this position, what will people say about me?

Undoubtedly, all of us would like to have outstanding outcomes in key student satisfaction areas. Yet, I would posit that the most important work is not simply achieving results but, also, forming a community of the workplace. As a former senior student affairs officer and current university president, the core of what I do across campus resides in creating an environment and workplace in which people can actualize their personal mission within the context of our Catholic mission. Our work as leaders at Catholic institutions is not simply to create dynamic teams; it is, also, to create a community of bondedness by sharing our work, relationships, and mission, and seeking to provide eternal purpose and meaning in life.

The creation of a community of the workplace and academy requires these essential elements:

First, a high-trust environment where open, respectful, and honest dialogue occurs without the threat of reprisal. As leaders, community begins to take foot when we commit to developing an environment that is not only safe, but where critical feedback and dialogue are welcomed. It begins with leadership modeling trust.

Second, a community where listening abounds. A disciplined and developed leader does not need to win the argument; he or she can be quiet and listen, ask pointed and direct questions rather than refute assumptions. By engaging in this practice, I have found myself led into deeper truth.

Third, open and honest communication is critical to fruitful relationships with members of the university community. I have observed that the most effective leaders deliver difficult news in the context of being in relationship with others. Student affairs professionals do this with regularity and, thus, need to be models for administrators, staff, and faculty.

We all experience times when we lose sight of our purpose and wonder why we chose a vocation in student affairs. Work in student affairs is life in the trenches: the gritty, the everyday spirituality to which Pope Francis calls us. It’s accompanying our students through the ups and downs, through the unexpected and the mundane. It is here that we become the “bread and butter” presence that makes a lasting difference in their lives.


  • Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Free Press, 2004.
  • Hamel, Gary. “The 15 Diseases of Leadership, According to Pope Francis.” Harvard Business Review. 14 April 2015.
  • Rolheiser, Ronald. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. New York: Image, 2014.