By Tree Langdon

The Pope is the most powerful leader of the largest religion in the world, with ultimate authority over the Church and its followers.  He has great influence and is widely respected by leaders in many countries.  In 2012, the Pope was 5th on the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people.   When Pope Benedict XVI retired in 2013; it was a surprise to many in the Church, as retirement from the Papal office is an unusual event. 

Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio was an unknown factor.  Within the process of the papal election there are no research teams or media to explore the background of candidates and prepare reports for voters.  There are no polls or other tools to make comparisons or evaluate the suitability of a person to lead the Church.  It is a closed, secretive process which has not changed for centuries. 

Bergoglio was not the first choice of many Cardinals in attendance at the enclave.  There were three names ahead of his.  The three groups of supporters were locked in a conflict and were unable to come to a compromise.  Each group decided to vote for Bergoglio instead of crossing the floor or letting the other groups’ candidate win the vote, so he was elected.

Bergoglio was the safe conservative compromise; he was a Jesuit from Latin America, which is a strong growth target market for the Church.  The only information that the Cardinals heard regarding his ideas for the papacy, was in a very short speech in the conclave where he said the Church had to stop living within itself in order to survive.  He has surprised many of the Cardinals with his choices.

Once he was elected, he chose Francis as his papal name.  By that choice, he associated himself with St Francis of Assisi who had a strong commitment to the poor and disenfranchised.

Expectations of a new Pope tend to run along the lines of the status quo; people are used to the pomp and ceremony enjoyed by past popes and they expect any new pope to take advantage of the benefits of the office.  Past popes surrounded themselves with trusted assistants that usually ended up protecting them to the point where they rarely had any genuine contact with others.  In order to meet with the pope, you had to find a way to get past the bodyguards and secretaries by following strict protocol in your application for an audience.  Often it was a personal connection with an insider that made the difference.

Pope Francis was a new manager who planned to make a lot of changes and he has used several important principles of change management to implement it. 

Tell it like it is.

Communication was one of the most significant items he focused on during the first weeks in the Papal office.  Although he was not computer savvy, he embraced Twitter.  In his first messages, he tweeted about the need for change in the world and our need as human beings to make changes in ourselves.  He was not afraid to embrace this new technology as he could see that it is an important tool to connect with people at all levels.  Social media is one of the most effective ways to influence this generation and Pope Francis could see how powerful it was.

Listen and Learn.

Accessibility is another great technique that has been taught to managers facing change implementation.  This Pope was different in ways that had not been seen before at the Vatican.  He would arrive to personally pay his bill at the hotel where he was staying, or accept a drink of tea from a stranger on the street which alarmed his bodyguards. He cracked jokes and spent extra time with the people he met on his visits, completely changing long held views of the leader of the Church. 

He doesn’t have a protective circle around him as he intentionally wants people to have access to him.  He doesn’t always tell his secretaries about his appointments until the person is about to arrive.  He does this so that he has the freedom to bypass the bureaucracy that existed in the office in the past.    Personal handwritten thank you notes and invitations connect him to the public and allow them to connect with him. 

Start at the Top.

This is another principle that sends a strong message throughout an organization of a manager’s commitment to change.   Francis took over a corrupt Vatican that was filled with cronyism and favoritism and there was resistance to anything that would change the status quo. 

He had one strong advantage in his favor:  When he puts on the Papal robes, the Pope is the ultimate authority in the Church and although there may be resistance to change, ultimately the administration has to follow his lead.

A red-nosed Pope and Italian newlyweds who volunteer at a children’s charity, 2013.

© Realyeasystar/Fotografia Felici/Alamy. (photo credit)

The Pope makes many decisions without relying heavily on advisors or the Curia, unlike Popes of the past.  He doesn’t want to rely on anyone around him to the extent that they become indispensable, reducing the risk that they might become powerful in their own right.  He appointed eight Cardinals to a task force to reform the Curia and has streamlined its organizational chart, bypassing the bureaucracy of centuries past and flattening its hierarchy.  He changed his title to Bishop of Rome from Supreme Pontiff and delegated some of the papacy’s traditional duties.

He publicly scolded leaders in the church for remaining inflexible in the face of difficult issues such as gay marriage, abortion and birth control.  This didn’t mean that he planned to overturn long held canon law; instead Francis advocates love and respect for a person, even if certain acts are wrong.  He is determined to reopen conversations about these complicated social issues. 

Francis is strongly influenced by his past experience of ascending to the top of the church in Argentina during a national financial crisis, where more than half the population lived for years in poverty under miserable circumstances.  This experience influenced his stance on the economy.

He criticizes the economic culture that leaves us blind to the misery of the poor, much to the concern of some well to do conservatives. Some have gone so far as to call his message Marxist. He has called for action on climate change and the fiscal system that he says disadvantages the poor, arguing that the world community has a religious obligation to care for the poor and for the earth itself.  Wealthy supporters of the Church have hinted that funding for restorations of Church buildings might run into funding difficulties if he continues to make such exclusionary remarks.  Francis is not afraid to take on the establishment, though his office represents the establishment in many ways.

Own it.

He embraces the poor and the marginalized and has established a Vatican tribunal on priestly sexual abuse, finally taking action to promises that the Church will call bishops to account.

He is reforming the finances of the Vatican.  By setting up an economy ministry he has created ownership of the changes he intends to make as he plans to overhaul the long-corrupt Vatican Bank. 

He likes to break rules.  Francis carries his own brief case and allows others to take the elevator with him.  Right after his election he included women in a service that was open only to men in the past.  Later, he changed the rules worldwide to reflect that inclusion.

Francis sees the Church as the voice and face of mercy.  Just before he was elected, he was reading a book by a Cardinal who spoke out about the harshness of the approach of the former Popes, and he mentioned it in one of his first weekly addresses to the crowds in the piazza.  It’s a welcome change for most to hear.

Be Decisive and Take Risks. 

When a decision is needed, taking the first step is important to initiate lasting change.  Francis made unconventional decisions, causing shifts in the papacy, taking risks that showed people a new perspective of the Church.  He has reached out to agnostics and atheists with his willingness to discuss previously closed topics.

The Jesuits have a historical practice of choosing a course of action, rather than inaction.  It involves listening and thinking, a meditation where you seek the advice of God and then make a decision.  It’s a style that Francis has embraced during his life and especially in his time at the Vatican.  This has allowed him to manage the changes needed to move this large and entrenched institution into the current century. 

Live the Change

Addressing the culture and its underlying behaviors is another way to communicate your commitment to change and Francis lives as a strong symbol of the changes he is trying to make.

Right away it was clear that Pope Francis was going to be a refreshing presence in the Vatican.  He refused to live in the sumptuous apartments in the papal palace, choosing instead to live in a small two room apartment.  This was one of the first and most telling decisions he made.  It clearly represented his intention to remain with the people, at street level, instead of rising above them in the luxury of the palace.  It has also allowed him to preserve his independence from the Vatican administration.  Instead of the chauffeured Mercedes limo, he rides in a Ford Focus and he takes care of his own appointments.

He has managed to remain true to himself and has avoided the pageantry of the Vatican and the expectations of the members of the Church. 

It’s like another great religious leader once said:  “Be the change you want to see in this world”.  Francis is certainly doing just that.

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