Three leadership lessons learnt from Álvaro del Portillo

With the beatification of Álvaro del Portillo happening this weekend, I wanted to reflect on three leadership (or management, if you like) lessons I learnt from the prelate of Opus Dei and successor of Saint Josemaría Escrivá.

1. Prioritize well
Even though you may already be doing the right things and doing them right, make sure that you are aware which tasks are the most important. Once you are under the pressure of time or any other distress, you will immediately know which tasks you should abandon.

Álvaro del Portillo or Don Álvaro, as he is colloquially called, knew how to prioritize. In 1967 he was awarded with a Grand Cross of Saint Raymond of Peñafort, and a friend of him mentioned in the laudation that in his youth, Don Álvaro studied civil engineering, travelled around Spain to spread Opus Dei, and helped Saint Josemaría to run the Work. Don Álvaro thanked for the kind words and added that he indeed had a busy life helping Saint Josemaría in the governance of Opus Dei, travelling with the apostolic mission, and studying. He mentioned exactly the same things, but in a different order. And indeed, once Saint Josemaría asked Don Álvaro to become a priest, Don Álvaro without needing to think twice knew that from all the good things he was doing, he needed to abandon his career as an engineer.

2. Find the place where you can be most effective
Maybe you are not a type of a person who shines in social gatherings. That’s perfectly fine. Do not force yourself to stand in the spotlight. You can move forward with your projects faster if you behave in line with your temperament, not social expectations.

Don Álvaro never sought to sit in the first rows, and he acted discreetly, but effectively. Until today, many Catholics do not realize the importance that Don Álvaro played during the Second Vatican Council, for example by editing the final version of one of the most important documents “Presbyterorum Ordinis”. Yet those who got to know Don Álvaro learnt to appreciate his fast pace of work and open heart. The day Don Álvaro died, Pope John Paul II personally came to pray at his mortal rests, a tribute which the Pope had never paid to any bishop before.

3. Have a vision for the whole and act with small steps
Don Álvaro wanted to change the world for better. But he also knew that big projects tend to fail big time. So during his tenure as the head of Opus Dei, with the support of the faithful of the Work, he kept initiating a number of small institutions which were giving back directly to local communities. He made sure to improve medical healthcare by founding a medical center in Kinshasa, he encouraged people of Guatemala to learn new skills by establishing an agricultural school in Tecpán Chimaltenango, and he increased the level of education of orphans in Mexico by supporting a children’s school in Guadalupe, to name just a few examples.

Along these lines, on the occasion of the beatification of Don Álvaro, everybody is encouraged to support the Project Harambee which runs a number of educational programs in Africa.