Francis: the loneliest leader in Christendom


Pope Francis: praying for the spirit of change

Imagine the problem. You are the recently appointed charismatic executive chairman of a global organisation. It is creaking at the seams, and you have been brought in to sort it out.

The corporation has been humiliated by a series of scandals that have undermined its core values; its leaders are at war with one another over future strategy; it is out of touch with its customers – and they number in millions worldwide. Some have turned to other brands, but the bulk of them have stopped consuming your product.

This is the challenge facing Jorge Mario Bergoglio – head of one of the biggest corporations on the planet: the Roman Catholic Church. He is putting a brave face on his problems.

Better known now as Pope Francis, Bergoglio has been trying to effect change since his election in March 2013. Unfortunately for him, his management team is packed with appointments from the previous regime. They are mostly deeply conservative and were handpicked for their commitment to the status quo. Many regard Francis as a dangerous radical.

They have done all they can to block his path.

Last December he took the unprecedented step of publicly admonishing his senior management team. He told the College of Cardinals they had ‘hearts of stone’, were obsessed with personal power and prestige, and took too much pleasure in the failure of others. He has continued to criticise them in public and in private.

In many businesses, life gets cushier the closer you get to the top. But this pope wants a church that is more in tune with its followers – many of whom live in poverty. He has rejected many of the trappings of office, and expects his senior managers to do so too.

There’s nothing poor managers loathe more than a new boss who expects them to lead by example; and it’s a bit embarrassing if you are seen driving round in a Lexus while the boss turns up in a Fiat 500.

It doesn’t help that Francis’s immediate predecessor Benedict XVI – who took early retirement – is living in a company apartment in the monarchical style to which he had become accustomed.

In addition to refuseniks from the pontificates of Benedict and John Paul II, Francis has another difficult division to deal with. How do you sustain a common brand across international boundaries?

Many multinationals face similar problems. In the case of the Catholic Church there is growing tension between the ‘liberal’ west and the Church in Africa – one a mature and the other a growing market. The African church is completely out of sympathy with Francis’s apparent willingness to take a more sympathetic approach to people who are homosexual.

Now approaching 80, Francis knows he does not have time on his side. His critics know that too.

He has few tools at his disposal. He may be the head of state of the world’s smallest absolute monarchy, but the power he wields is to some degree illusory. “The pope! How many divisions does he have?” asked Josef Stalin. How many indeed?

Moral authority is the only real weapon he has and, as the untidy conclusion of the recent Synod on the Family revealed, opponents of change within the church are not afraid to stand up to him.

One of the attractions of the Catholic Church’s brand has been its apparent unwillingness to change for the sake of it. But a longer view suggests flexibility is one of the ways it has survived (this is a common trait of many successful corporations). But it is a flexibility that, in the past, has been exercised slowly and deliberately.

Francis knows we now live in a more complex world, and one that is changing rapidly. Scientific advance is deepening our understanding of the world around us; mass communication is opening new sources of information and provoking debate; and technology has transformed the way we receive information and assimilate it.

As change becomes more rapid, the response needs to be timely too. The Church needs to speed up.

Business knows that survival often necessitates senior managers rethinking their strategy and their tactics. Fortune favours the brave, and leaders with vision can transform organisations.

But they need their senior managers, middle managers and the workforce to be united in a common cause. Non-believers need to be weeded out. Francis is more in tune with those on the shop floor than many leaders, and that is a strength. He also has some good managers, but he does not have strength there in breadth and depth.

He is in loneliest place of all. He is a leader who knows his organisation is failing, who has a vision for its future, but who does not have the capacity to make the changes needed. His frustration is showing.

In the past the Church has relied on the guiding hand of the ‘Holy Spirit’. As it faces an uncertain future, it had better hope the Holy Spirit has spent some time at the Harvard Business School.