Several years ago, at the end of a philanthropic trip to Indonesia, I was joined at the airport by one of my hosts, Father Sad Budianto, CM, who insisted on waiting with me until my plane boarded. Every time I encouraged him to leave to get on with his day, he replied, “I will accompany you.”

Those words remain with me today, as I am reminded to accompany those I seek to serve. Similarly, Pope Francis has challenged those in the Church to be present for those who need us most.

It’s a dictate that should extend to Catholic colleges and universities, where students should not only feel the impact of our policies, programs and services, but also the power of our presence.

Pope Francis has been rightly heralded as an example of how to minister to the world — spiritually, philanthropically and in the human rights arena. But it was somewhat unexpected to see him also noted in the Harvard Business Review as a manager and leader, akin to a CEO.

Gary Hamel, professor at London Business School, wrote that Pope Francis has identified “15 Diseases of Leadership” (a reference to his famous 2014 address to the Roman Curia) and recommends that “leaders turn to the pope for wisdom and advice.”

The current pontiff has exhibited extraordinary managerial ability and finesse as he moves the Church forward. I see him as linking the Catholic Church’s faith and fidelity to the “bread and butter” issues of the 21st century.

University leaders and managers can benefit from the pope’s example by developing a sense of living spirituality in the area of student affairs by implementing three concepts: spirituality of accompaniment, of administration, and of the academy and workplace.

During my days as a student affairs officer, and still today as a university president, I work hard to be present on campus, attending events and being part of students’ daily lives without intruding. I may eat in the dining hall, have coffee in a public area or meet with staff members, when appropriate, in public spaces, all allowing for student interaction.

Experience has shown me that regular interaction contributes greatly to our mission of educating students, and the practice extends to faculty, administrators and staff.

Senior student affairs officers must cultivate a working spirituality of being there for students during their challenging four-year journeys. I believe Pope Francis has raised the bar for us to be accessible to people, accompanying them with a dynamic and regular presence.

A spirituality of administration is another crucial tenet, rooted in the belief that administration is a labor of servant leadership that allows Catholic and student development missions to flourish.

Though mundane at times, this work that goes largely unnoticed and requires significant time, is very clearly understood by Pope Francis who spends much of his morning and other parts of the day reviewing reports, reading, studying and preparing for meetings. His approach recognizes that administration is not the end, but in the words of St. Paul in his letter to Timothy, allows truth, beauty and God’s spirit to flourish.

In concrete terms, this means surrounding yourself with immensely gifted people, professionals with expertise and specialized knowledge you may not have and listening to them. In my years as a vice president for student affairs, I worked with people with great proficiency in student wellness and counseling, residence life, career services, student programming, multi-cultural issues and other specialties.

I learned so much from them, and was comfortable with the notion that utilizing their expertise did not diminish my authority.

It’s also important to challenge yourself and your team to a culture of excellence and servant leadership. Lead by example and allow others to see, in your administration, that no task is beneath you.

Recruit student affairs professionals whose personal goals are in congruence with the Catholic mission. Throughout my career, I have been edified by the commitment in my colleagues, finding at times that my own commitment paled in comparison.

Do not be threatened by those you supervise. Too many times advancement of an idea is held back simply because the lead administrator didn’t have enough personal confidence to rely on those around him or her. Harnessing the collective gifts of those around you will bring your group as a whole to greater heights.

Challenge yourself to empower others, even if you receive no personal credit. The highest level of spirituality of administration is being true to one’s values.

Stephen Covey, in the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, encourages his readers to visualize their funeral. With the philosophy of beginning with the end in mind, he asks, “What will people say about you at the end of your life?” Translating that into your work in student affairs, ask, “When I leave this position, what will people say about me?”

While all of us would like to have outstanding outcomes in key student satisfaction areas, the most important achievement, I believe, is to form a community in the workplace. The core of what I do across campus is creating an environment where people can actualize their personal mission in the context of our Catholic mission.

Our work as leaders is not simply to create dynamic teams, but also to create a bond by sharing our work, relationships and mission, and seeking to provide eternal purpose and meaning in life.

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

  • A high-trust environment with open, respectful and honest dialogue, free of the threat of reprisal. The workplace should be a safe one where critical feedback is welcomed.
  • A community where importance is placed on listening. A disciplined and developed leader does not need to win each argument. He or she can listen and ask pointed questions without refuting assumptions.
  • Open and honest communication is critical to fruitful relationships with members of the university community. The most effective leaders deliver difficult news in the context of being in relationship with others. Student affairs professionals do this regularly and need to be models for the rest of the administration, faculty and staff.

We all experience times when we lose sight of our purpose and wonder why we chose a vocation in student affairs. Working in student affairs is life in the trenches: the gritty, everyday spirituality to which Pope Francis calls us. It’s accompanying our students through the ups and downs, the unexpected and the mundane.

It is here that we become the “bread and butter” presence that makes a lasting difference in their lives.

Father James J. Maher, CM, is the President of Niagara University. This piece was excerpted from a chapter in the book, Student Affairs Practice in Higher Education: An Updated Primer. The chapter is entitled, “Pope Francis: A Model of Leadership and Management at Catholic Institutions, a Guide of Senior Student Affairs Officers.”