Leadership is important. It is important in business. It is important in non-profits. It is important in government. It seems a fitting topic for this week, the week when the leader of the Roman Catholic Church visits the Philippines for the first time.
Pope for change
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man time called the “People’s Pope” was Archbishop of Buenos Aires before he was elected 266th head of the Roman Catholic Church in March 2013. He first gained global admiration for his humility, eschewing the pomp and luxury that had become traditional to the office. He has since gained global respect for his courage and his principles.
The election of Pope Francis, first to take the name, was widely seen as a sign that the church was ready for change, but a mellower sort of change. In an article in the Guardian, John Hooper called the decision of the cardinals a compromise between “cardinals who wanted a thorough shake-up of the Vatican and those who did not.”
As the country prepared for the papal visit, many anticipated his message. The Philippines is the largest predominantly Catholic country in Asia and, like the church itself, continues to face many challenges.
As I write this, we do not yet know what the pope will say. What we do know is what he has said and done in the past. When Time named him Person of the Year in 2013, they told a story of a man on a mission. Much like the saint whose name he has taken, Pope Francis cared deeply for the poor, traveling alone using the Buenos Aires subway to visit the slums and the barrios.
In sharp contrast to the rules-making of the two previous holders of the post, Francis is seen as warm and reachable. Where some of the clergy attempt to rule by the drawing of lines, he reaches out. His messages on the stickiest issues of the Catholic Church are the same but somehow softer.
Within days of his election, it had already become clear that this Pope was going to be different. He refused all the trappings of the office, opting always for the simple path.
A month after his election, he formed a party of eight like-minded bishops to consult with him regularly on difficult problems. The consultative group includes cardinals from Honduras, Chile and the Congo as well as from Boston, Australia and Munich. Clearly, this Pope is interested in breaking down barriers.
On the sticky matter of corruption in the Vatican Bank, Pope Francis quickly appointed a special commission which itself quickly handed over the investigation work to an independent firm for audit. In October 2013, the Vatican Bank disclosed an annual report for the first time in its 125-year history.
Pope Francis stopped the granting of the honorific title of monsignor, encouraging the clergy to focus on pastoral work. In 2013, he appointed Vatican Almoner head Konrad Krajewski, 50-year-old (young by Vatican standards). “You can sell your desk. You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor.”
Much like a new leader in business, Pope Francis moved quickly to address critical matters, attaining clarity concerning his interpretation of the organization’s goals and values. He reached out to all the members of the congregation, not only those who had somehow found themselves in positions of favor. Most importantly, he tackled the sticky issues head on, signaling that the time for equivocation had passed. Pope Francis made it clear very early on that he is serious about change.
At the end of 2013, Pope Francis reshuffled roughly half of the membership of the powerful “Thursday Table” of Congregation for Bishops, the group that recommends nominees for Episcopal appointments in the developed world.
It was the beginning of what would be a year of tumult for the Vatican, one which exposed the deep divisions concerning the directions Pope Francis was going to take.
In the pope’s speech to the reconstituted Congregation of Bishops in February 2014, Pope Francis explains what kind of leaders the Church needs. The Church, he says, needs men who make the “for you” accessible, guardians of doctrine not in order to measure how far away the world lives from the truth … but in order to attract the world, to attract it by the beauty of love…” “What the church needs, Pope Francis explains, is authentic pastors; those who work not for themselves or those close to them, but those who work, daily, permanently and truly “for the flock.”
In 2014, in what is widely considered the equivalent of the Vatican’s State of the Nation Address, the Christmas message, Pope Francis delivered what may be the most controversial of his messages. In it he enumerated 15 “Ailments of the Clergy.” Speaking to what is the Church’s equivalent of senior management, the Pope named no names but left no doubt that the enumerated diseases are not theoretical. He spoke against the “pathology of power” and the temptation of “narcissism.” He asked officials to reject gossip, division and the building of personal empires. He spoke about the danger of being closed off in “closed circles” which are seen as more important than the church as a whole.
The Christmas address was widely seen as a harsh criticism of the current Church leadership and those following current reforms worry that it could hamper progress.
Recent research by the McKinsey group (Feser et al) shows that 89 percent of the variance between the bottom and top quartile of performers in organizational health are explained by four leadership traits: being supportive, operating with a strong results orientation, seeking different perspectives and solving problems effectively.
Pope Francis clearly operates with a strong results orientation and has a history of solving problems effectively. He has sought the perspectives of many and has been supportive of a larger portion of the church. But he is working with an entrenched curia, not all of whom are in favor of his reforms.
This, as all managers know, is where the rubber meets the road. The reality is that organizations do not change; it is the people in organizations that change. There is a time in every change when the tipping point is achieved, when enough individuals have embraced the reform’s goals and it is possible to begin real change. The reality is that change requires “deep dive”. Real change requires changing not just behavior, not just rules; it requires changing mindsets and basic beliefs. It requires an admission that current mindsets are wrong.
In Christmas of 2014, Pope Francis spoke to the powerful in the Vatican. He became a mirror. He showed the curia what is currently wrong. It can be dangerous to be a mirror. Those facing a mirror can either embrace the message and embrace the change, or reject the message and break the mirror.
The papal Christmas message speech came at a time when Francis and his nine key Cardinal advisers were drawing up plans for revamping the Vatican bureaucratic structure. Whether the speech hurt or aided the reform depends on whether the pope correctly ascertained the moment.
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