The 'WYSIWYG' leader

It's difficult to know how revolutionary a new leader will be. Is that smile just a pleasant first impression? Or is this really a case of 'what you see is what you get?'

AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano
In this photo, a young boy, no name available, hugs Pope Francis as he delivers his speech during an audience with families in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano
In this photo, a young boy, no name available, hugs Pope Francis as he delivers his speech during an audience with families in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.

New leaders are like new cars. You can read what the experts say about them, check out their style, and watch how they perform right off the lot. But time is the real test. Style fades. Substance remains.

Will Hassan Rouhani’s policies as the president of Iran be as moderate as his manner seems? Will Chinese leader Xi Jinping root out corruption and boost freedom for 1.4 billion Chinese? Is Pope Francis a new kind of leader who will be able to change a very old church?

Each inherits historical baggage, entrenched bureaucracies, rival factions, and breathtakingly varied opinions about what, if anything, should change. In each case, initial moves are being carefully watched. Mr. Xi, for instance, has declared war on graft and prosecuted a few high-profile cases over the past year, but he has also renewed a crackdown on dissent. 

Libraries are filled with books about change management. Most agree that turning around an established culture requires clear goals, buy-in from stakeholders, transparent decisionmaking, demonstrable wins, and steadiness amid setbacks. If getting-to-know you smiles and good feelings aren’t followed by decisive and successful actions, credibility can be lost.

How can interested observers tell whether the leader behind the fresh face is really a change agent? Most of us rely on the test of time. After Margaret Thatcher met Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984, she said, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” His style, she wrote in her memoirs, “expressed the substance of the personality beneath.” She was right. Gorbachev helped end the cold war and Soviet communism. But after George W. Bush hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001, he observed, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.... I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Time has not validated that observation.

And time is often short when trying to judge a new leader. I was among a group of journalists who met Mr. Rouhani recently in New York. He and his entourage were gracious. The Iranian president answered questions frankly. Subsequent diplomatic negotiations were described as productive and encouraging. So the atmospherics seemed good. But skeptics such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been warning that Rouhani is on a charm offensive, hoping to buy time so that Iran can complete its quest for nuclear weapons.

Style can deceive. But style can also influence substance. If Iran’s friendliness is followed by honest dealmaking – and if economic sanctions are eased as a result – a virtuous cycle might set in. Why not be what you appear to be? It’s easier to be consistent than to fake it.

There seems little doubt that Pope Francis is sincerely interested in a less regal and more populist papacy. In his early days in office (see this Monitor Weekly cover story for details), he has forgone finery, the comforts of the Apostolic Palace, and shunned luxury automobiles. The namesake of St. Francis seems to want a Vatican that is more Assisi and less imperial Rome. Among his early moves, he suspended a free-spending German bishop, opened a dialogue with atheists, and said of homosexuals, “Who am I to judge?” 

Roman Catholics and many others are watching with great interest. Church doctrine in areas like the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, and gay marriage remains unchanged. But he’s been in office for only eight months. So far, he’s shown style. We’ll know about the substance in time. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

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