Pope Francis and the Benefits of Servant Leadership in Negotiations

How unique qualities of leadership in negotiations can help difficult circumstances

By — on / Leadership Skills

leadership in negotiations

Progress on global climate change accords has been incremental at best and nonexistent at worst. As in any negotiation, it is important to get the issues right and make sure all the relevant parties are at the table, but this is often easier said than done. Good leadership in negotiations can help you ensure that both happen, but there is always the risk that a strong personality can just as easily distract from the substance that matters. In particular, Pope Francis showed how a particular leadership quality—servant leadership—has a unique ability to help frame the terms of a negotiation, welcome stakeholders who otherwise might not take part, and most importantly, keep the focus of a negotiation on the issues at hand.

Debates over how to tackle climate change have led to some of the world’s largest negotiations, from the Rio Earth Summit to ongoing negotiations about the future of the Arctic. Troubled by mounting evidence on the effects of climate change, Pope Francis believes more should be done, but he also faces serious barriers. Some large businesses and governments are reluctant to cut carbon emissions, and politicians in a handful of countries dispute the existence of climate change at all.

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In order to frame a new discussion about climate change, Francis issued back in 2015, an encyclical —a religious letter delivered to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics by way of 5,104 Bishops. In it, he specifically attributed climate change to human activity, and implored Catholics to take difficult steps to avert climate collapse.

A powerful leader, the Pope must nevertheless negotiate with parties who harbor opposing views if he hopes to get the outcome he seeks. To do so, he is able to use what experts call servant leadership to affect the actions of others. While most negotiators may not ever face a global negotiation of such magnitude, the Pope’s actions provide important lessons about leadership in negotiations that can help with almost any hard deal.

Issues matter, not positions—Negotiation experts counsel parties to look past positions and focus on the interests that are often obscured underneath. Issuing the encyclical to fellow Catholics rather than sending an open letter to other leaders, the Pope signaled that the matter of climate change is an issue directly relevant to his faith and to the faith of Catholics.

In difficult negotiations, people frequently challenge why certain parties are at the table at all. Servant leadership can effectively keep everyone’s eyes on the issues rather than on the personalities representing them. By taking on climate change as a matter of faith, Francis pre-empted challenges about whether or not he is intruding in politics—a matter of positions—and instead framed the discussion around the issue that matters most to him.

Expand your sense of value—When parties dig into positions, they typically get bad deals and leave unclaimed value on the table. Getting the most out of a deal often starts with getting the right people on your own side. Many people, including a large number of Catholics, have likely never thought about the relationship between human activity and climate change.

Instead of taking on his opposition, Francis’ letter was intent on changing how fellow Catholics perceive the issue by making it about the combined impact of how people lead their lives. In short, Francis has sought to expand how individuals perceive the potential value of tackling climate change by linking it to a more expansive set of collective values.

Involve all the parties and set expectations— In many ways, servant leadership means leading by example. It is always important to get the right parties involved in a negotiation and it is just as crucial to set proper expectations for how you think they will get the best outcome. Francis was not simply imploring the world’s Catholics to come to the table to address climate change, he was promising to lead them through it as part of a matter of faith. With the encyclical, he has communicated that this is an issue to which all Catholics are party, but also described in detail the ways in which he believes they can hope to prevail.

Know When to Anchor

It is always difficult to know when to make the first offer and when to let the other side go first. By relating climate change to human activity, Francis is, in many ways, making the first move. This can have a powerful effect, and negotiation experts often call it anchoring because it can frame how people see the terms of a leadership in negotiations for a long time. However, anchoring can come at a cost. If you let the other side go first, you have greater opportunity to learn something about the issues that they value in the negotiation.

Born of powerfully held convictions, servant leadership in negotiations requires some element of faith that you have identified the right issues first. This leaves little opportunity for letting the other side anchor first. Only time will tell whether or not the Pope’s actions are successful, but his opening salvo showed how an effective leader can jump into big negotiations without losing his way.

What do you think about Pope Francis’s approach to servant leadership in negotiations?

Real Leaders Negotiate

Claim your FREE copy: Real Leaders Negotiate

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.

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2 Responses to “Pope Francis and the Benefits of Servant Leadership in Negotiations”

  • Roger C.

    Many negotiations are undermined by forgetting the interests and defend positions. Many trouble gives us the reptilian brain that prevents us from yielding.

  • Adrian V.

    Pope Francis is an experienced negotiator. His background as Cardinal/Archbishop of Argentina, his training as a Jesuit & importantly he listens to other point of views before acting in good Faith. Besides, he has the Holy Spirit to guide him especially during current troubled times of clergy abuses. I believe he will never succumb to critics even within the Church & will negotiate pragmatically & spiritually with his knowledge of negotiations with several cultures & traditionalists.


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