The 7 Management Lessons of Pope Francis
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a South American Jesuit, got the job of a lifetime (and, one assumes, after-lifetime) a year ago. He was elected Pope.
Taking the name Francis, his reign so far has been marked by humility, risk taking and a deep questioning of the Church's mission in the world. He has been popular with Catholics and members of other faiths alike.
With a focus on poverty, he has made wealth and some capitalist practices a frequent target of his preaching. Francis has extolled against the “God called money” and has questioned the size of salaries and bonuses in the corporate world.
Yet, despite this, he has actually provided some good examples of leadership and management for good, old-fashioned capitalists and business leaders. One year into his papacy, he has shown what business managers would call best practices. Here are seven of them:
I. He lives by example. Pope Francis, likely from his background in the Society of Jesus, wants an austere church, one focused on the simple instead of the ornate. Famously he said, “Oh, how I would like a poor church, and for the poor.” Poverty is a recurring theme. Though he spent his life under a vow of poverty as a Jesuit, not every cleric who does so lives by such an example. After all, there are only two things God doesn't know: How many orders of nuns there are, and how much money the Franciscans have.
But poverty, and working for the poorest, is so important to Francis and so important to the Church he wants that he lives it by example as Bishop of Rome. He declined to move into the lavish papal apartments, choosing instead to live in the broader Vatican community. He drives his own car, a 1984 Renault 4. The morning after he was elected Pope, he went to check out of his hotel and pay his bill – to the surprise of the innkeepers. No priest or bishop – or salesman or employee – can mistake his mandate because they can see their boss living it in simple, yet meaningful, ways.
Related: The Myth of the Have-Nots
II. He knows the value of reform. The Vatican has had a terrible history with corruption. It has entrenched managers, particularly in the Roman Curia, which runs the day-to-day Church. In the past, members of the Curia have exercised more authority than the Popes themselves. Some said Angelo Cardinal Sodano, who spent 16 years as Cardinal Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, was the most powerful prelate in the Church, particularly when John Paul's health deteriorated so markedly.
As a result of the bureaucracy, the Church has taken its eye of the organizational ball. So, reforming the organization has been a priority. Francis put together a group of advisors from around the globe to work for the reform of the Curia. He stripped the Secretary of State of some key powers, spreading out those duties among more cardinals. He has selected many managers with no ties to Rome.
Business leaders new to an organization know how hard this is. Institutions are hard to reform. Culture is hard to change. But it is possible. If it can be done in an organization that is 2,000 years old, it can be done anywhere.
III. He communicates clearly. There is no corporate-speak with Francis (or, in his case, Vatican-speak). If he ran the Federal Reserve, every time he opened his mouth he would cause a 500-point swing in the Dow, simply because he doesn't hedge. He says what is on his mind. Orthodoxy is important to churches and businesses alike. But he speaks plainly about challenging orthodoxy, about not making a pronouncement because it is the right thing to say. Whether the issue is homosexuality, women or the role of the Church in the world, he says what he thinks. There is no parsing his meaning.
IV. He makes tough decisions quickly and loudly. The Vatican Bank has been famously corrupt. Last summer, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano was arrested for trying to help friends launder money through the bank. Francis acted decisively, changing management of the bank, ousting some of its key employees and setting up a commission to study its structure. As part of the reform of the Curia, he created a new department, called the Secretariat for the Economy, specifically to bring transparency to the finances of the Church. How easy would it have been to sweep the Church's financial problems under the rug? How tempting is it for managers to hide their biggest problems, rather than address them?
What's more, he certainly knows when it's time to wield the axe. Late last year, the Church was embarrassed by the spending habits of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Bishop of Limburg in Germany. Dubbed the “Bishop of Bling” because he spent $42 million on his home's renovation (which included a $20,000 bathtub), Tebartz-van Elst was also criticized by the local press for his travel habits. Seeing the controversy begin to spiral (and noticing that Tebartz-van Elst was acting counter to his own mandate for austerity), Francis took the extraordinary step of removing him from his diocese. Such public firings are rare for the Church, but that one sent a message that Francis meant business.
V. He collaborates and accepts diverse views. Francis wants to hear from you. He likes people. And he likes different kinds of people. He seems to kiss every baby thrust at him in St. Peter's Square. When it came time to wash the feet of the faithful as part of the Mass of the Last Supper in March 2013, he went to a juvenile prison instead of a major church, and washed the feet not only of the men (a tradition for the Pope), but also of women and Muslims. For his financial-reform efforts, he has tapped laypeople as well as clerics, something rare for important Vatican initiatives. He personally answers letters written to him from around the world. He even suggested that atheists could be saved.
Underlying this seems to be the impulse that diversity is good – something good leaders know well. That means diversity of opinions, of backgrounds, of experience and of ideals. A Pope can speak infallibly, meaning no one of the faithful can ever question what comes from on high. By contrast, Francis leads from the bottom up, respecting the opinion of a parishioner in Brazil as much as that of a Cardinal who has spent decades in an office in Rome.
VI. He knows his faults. There is no greater quote from Francis so far than what he told the Jesuit magazine America in September. When asked who he is, he answered, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” In the Catholic faith, everyone is a sinner, and the Pope is no exception. But that kind of humility is rare for someone who wears the white zucchetto (and even rarer for ones who where the scarlet ones). He is uniquely aware of his humanity, in a job where it is easier to believe in your divinity.
Business leaders know that trap. Often, we ignore our own shortcomings because we believe that what we are doing is absolutely the right thing in the right way. Knowing our faults, owning our mistakes, confessing them and learning from them is essential for leadership.
VII. He knows he can't do it alone. When Francis was just 36, he was put in charge of his Jesuit community in Argentina (a decision he called “crazy”). He says he was authoritarian, didn't seek counsel and created problems. As a result, he learned that he needs people around him whom he can trust. “When I entrust something to someone, I totally trust that person,” he said in the America interview. “He or she must make a really big mistake before I rebuke that person.”
Trust is vital for good leadership and management. Francis seems to trust those directly under him, but he also trusts his customers, the people of the Church.
Related: Preaching the Morality of Capitalism