Posted On 29th December 2013

Pope Francis I fascinates me. I’m not a Roman Catholic or religious in any way. So I won’t judge his theology. However, Francis has done several things many leaders and managers could usefully copy.

He’s also made one really big decision they should avoid. I’ll get to that at the end.

So what has he done, in his first ten months? What could you copy as you contemplate making the most of the people, company and kit you’re been put in charge of?

Quite a few things. At least seven in fact.

1)      He’s shockingly different from the last guy, and in just the right way. Clearly, he not only means change to happen, but is a large part of the change himself. He’s open, warm, dramatic, and, without sacrificing his dignity, he’s even fun. He’s got a sense of the theatrical.

2)      And he knows how to communicate this message of change. All that moving into a tiny room, washing his own undies and kissing prisoners’ feet, is great PR. After all, it’s not just a private, active affirmation of personal faith. The whole world knows about it.

3)      He’s grabbed hold of the one issue that has poisoned the Roman Catholic Church’s internally and externally – sex, basically – and relatively successfully changed perceptions. Standing at the back of flying aircraft and telling the world’s press corps he wasn’t going to judge gays reminds me of the kind of thing Gorbachev started to do in the early days of Glasnost. It was quick, shocking, powerful, and seemed heartfelt.

4)      He’s fired an under performing branch manager who wasn’t living the company’s values quickly – by Vatican standards amazingly quickly. The Bishop of Limburg, AKA the “Bishop of Bling”, who was destroying the Church in Germany by spending €20k on a bathtub and flying first class to an Indian conference on poverty, was exited.

5)      He’s also attempted a reorganisation of corporate HQ, introducing more consultation and bringing in new voices to challenge prevailing conservatism, including some much more radical than Francis himself. He wants to listen. He wants challenge.

6)      He’s also tried to defuse a colossal business risk – dealing with paedophile priests and their victims. In truth, Benedict did try to improve safeguarding and punish offenders. But the emphasis until Francis was all on church law, its uses and change. Now Francis wants a humane focus on restitution to victims.

7)      And finally, he’s made it look pretty easy. He smiles a lot, is tough enough to make quick decisions and naturally communicates with a global audience. Sometimes he does this just through a gesture.

For ten months in post that amounts to a huge achievement. The Catholic rank and file have got their morale back. A bit of discipline has gone into management. There’s a sense of pace and better communications. Some loudly ticking bombs are at least being found and a disposal strategy constructed.

So where do we go from here?

Of all the statesmen of my lifetime he reminds me most of Mikhail Gorbachev. He’s a fundamentally decent man who knows which way is up, and can talk in words people find exciting and right. He has started a colossal change programme for an organisation in extremis, to save it. He’s had one or two victories. It’s a good start. But we know what happened to the Soviet Union.

I’m reluctant to give long range predictions as I’ve written elsewhere. However, a little scenario planning has its place.

Francis is 75. Sadly, that’s a problem. None of us is here for ever. It’s a major risk factor for the change programme he’s leading. It may well be too late to stop the paedophile scandals bankrupting the church across Europe and North America, even if membership numbers can be stabilised.

Two entire cohorts of young priests joined under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They are not natural chnage agents. They joined in flight from the modern world, not to serve it. Francis can’t replace them. Even if he could find the vocations there simply isn’t time and the priesthood isn’t really the kind of profession you can look outside of to bring in people with transferable skills. Again, that’s a huge handicap.

So, the finances are rocky and human resources very questionable.

This brings me to the big mistake he’s made. Taking the job on at all.

I completely understand being Pope is not a “job” and Pope Francis considers he has no option, and he may be right. He’s also a very brave man. So was Gorbachev.

You have no such compulsion. You also, in all probability, do not have a job for life. If you did the due diligence on a job offer like this and didn’t turn it down you’re simply looking for a hill to die on. I’m all for finding challenges, slaying dragons, rescuing maidens and so on. But this is too big a challenge for anyone in any remotely normal life.

Yet, it increases my admiration for Francis that he took the challenge on. It’s hard not to wish him well.

David Welsh

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