Pope Francis and Pepe Mujica: Why Are Modest Leaders Making Waves?

Other top figures could learn from the popularity of a slum-visiting cleric and a Beetle-driving president.

At first glance, they are natural opposites. One was a successful priest, a high-ranking cleric, and now the leader of the world’s largest religious institution. The other, a lifelong atheist, started his life as a flower salesman, became a Marxist urban guerrillero, and is now a progressive president.

But in fact, the two men are remarkably similar. The first, Pope Francis, and the second, Uruguay’s President José Mujica, share a common leadership style, in which the dominant principles are modesty and humility.

The Pope caused a stir last July when reporters asked him about gay priests. “Who am I to judge?” was his reply. Not satisfied with the subversion implied in a mere call for tolerance, he doubled down by phrasing it in a way that questioned his own authority. This is hardly out of character for the Argentine. He has repeatedly called for an impoverished church. He dresses, lives, and speaks in a plain, austere manner. Francis also makes a point of scolding wasteful, vain clerics, while at the same time demonstrating compassion and care towards the weak and forgotten: those devastated by ruinous diseases, African migrants crawling to life on the sands of the Mediterranean shore, and even atheists.

Uruguay’s Mujica also leads by example. The former Marxist guerrilla famously drives an old Volkswagen Beetle, flies coach on diplomatic trips, and donates about 80 percent of his salary to charity. The president has been found casually shopping for toilet seat covers, helping neighbors affix loose planks during a thunderstorm (injuring his nose in the process), or loading up gasoline on his own. Recently, when the results for the global PISA primary school tests were published, he made a point of visiting the worst-performing school in Uruguay, rather than the best.

Parallel Lives

The similarities between the two leaders are not coincidental. Both men grew up geographically close to each other, and at the same time: Mujica was born in mid-1935, while Bergoglio was born in late 1936. Despite Argentina and Uruguay being separate countries, their societies and culture are nearly identical. In fact, one may well argue there are fewer differences between them than there are between the United States and Canada.

In the culture of Bergoglio and Mujica, politicians and other aspirants to hierarchy are often treated with little of the deference seen in the rest of Latin America. Religion, even for cardinals like Bergoglio, is also comparatively weak. The police and the military have little prestige. Women are well integrated, especially in politics. A common saying goes “No one is more than anyone else”.

Naturally, this does not mean all is bright. During the Cold War, a period of decay in Uruguay led to the rise of Mujica’s Tupamaros guerrillas, as well as their enemies in the military. In Argentina, very few governments since the 1930s have not been either a military dictatorship or a Peronist regime. In fact, this latter movement has produced cults of personality that are anathema to the simplicity described above. Because of this, Argentine democracy has been in a crisis for close to a century.