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Time's Person of 2013 shows world how leadership is done

Time magazine announced on December 11 that it picked Pope Francis as the Person of the Year for 2013. Not bad for a man who is less than a year into his job.

Nancy Gibbs, managing editor of the magazine, pointed out that "rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly - young and old, faithful and cynical".

Francis set the tone of humility for his papacy right from the first day of his election. He told the crowd of over 100,000 gathered in Saint Peter's Square: "And now I would like to give the blessing. But first I want to ask you a favour. Before the Bishop (bishop of Rome, i.e. pope) blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me - the prayer of the people for their Bishop."

From there, the Francis juggernaut set off. The world has been charmed by the new pope's everyman approach - how he prefers plainer attire than his predecessors, how he eschewed the papal palace and how he personally called to cancel his newspaper delivery back home in Argentina.

Even non-Catholics were impressed when he told the press "who am I to judge" priests' sexual orientations, when he washed the feet of a Muslim woman and embraced people with physical deformities.

The pope does not seem to stop at symbolic changes. Last month he made an unprecedented move by launching a survey to gather opinions from Catholics around the world on topics including same sex unions. He also launched reforms to the Vatican bureaucracy, including the scandal-plagued Vatican bank.

As one of the world's oldest religious organisations and bureaucracy, the Catholic Church is not known for audacity and change. Popes, on the other hand, have for centuries been revered by many as princes, "holy fathers", and personifications of divine authority. They are not known for their common touch. To change all that in just nine months, Francis has shown world leaders how to use the greatest weapon in their arsenal - their leadership.

While many admire Francis' audacity and humility, these characteristics are not what make him stand out as a leader. If anything, it was Pope Benedict XVI's equally bold and humble decision to voluntarily resign - the first pope to do so in over 700 years - that sets the stage for Francis.

Francis' true uniqueness lies in his understanding of leadership as a performance and his ability to touch his audience. With all the pomp and tradition, the regalia and insignia, the fisherman's ring, the papal cross, the new names and the "popemobile", the papacy is designed to be a character, an alter ego for the chief executive of one of the world's largest firms by membership. Francis' genius is in realising that the millennia-old design of the pope persona as a figure of mysterious authority no longer fits the modern world where a teenager can become a bigger star - with a bigger ego - than the pope.

The humility of Francis, in this sense, is not just a personal quality, but the trappings of a new alter ego emphasising on modesty. Through his public show of humility the new pope can gain the vital support and momentum he needs to being real changes to the church.

Leadership is a form of acting, but that does not mean it is insincere. Quite the contrary, it is the most sincere performance of all as its outcomes are very real and affect not only the performer but the people he or she tries to lead.

When President Ma Ying-jeou was first elected, he too had a popular public persona - the modest and clean reformer. Sadly for Taiwan, the president does not understand that in the true purpose of this persona as a leader, his personal cleanness is not the key. It is what he can do with it to gain momentum for reform. Worse still, the president committed the worst mistake a leader-actor can make: he is too drawn in by his own image as a clean official and became detached from the real world.

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