How a Rule Change by Pope Francis Gives a Lesson in Leadership to All
"Rules are made to be broken" is the beauseant of entrepreneurs, a cry to rally the cause and let people in the way know you mean business. It's the fundamental principle underlying issues like disruption and innovation. We hear about needing to break stuff, making omelettes with cracked eggs, and all those phrases we tweet or put on presentation slides at investor meetings.
Breaking rules, though, is surprisingly easy. Many of us break rules every day. If you drive, chances are you break some law every time you get behind the wheel, from the inadvertent failure to signal to the intentional pushing your car beyond the speed limit. We know rules and ignore them. That isn't disruptive or innovative. That's simply driving with the pack.
No, breaking rules is not hard. Changing them is. Better yet, changing them when a significant number of stakeholders want to keep the status quo.
That's why what Pope Francis did today is worth paying attention to as a lesson in management.
For non-Catholics and the Catholics who slept through CCD class (i.e., almost all of you), there's a ritual done every Holy Thursday, right before Easter, during what's known as the Mass of the Last Supper. A priest washes the feet of 12 specially selected Catholics, symbolizing the humility of Jesus, who did the same with his 12 apostles at the last supper before his trial and execution. It is powerful imagery, with priests, bishops and even the Bishop of Rome himself kneeling before parishioners and performing what is an otherwise unsavory task.
Last year, Francis raised hackles in his own Church by adding a twist: Rules have dictated for years that the 12 people chosen for this privilege be men. Francis, taking humility even a step further, went to a youth jail outside Rome and washed the feet of a group that included women and Muslims. Traditionalists and conservative Catholics went nuts, arguing that it was yet another of Francis's reforms that were eroding the Church. Truth be told, he was simply doing what he had always done. When he was plain-old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, he washed the feet of women all the time in the ceremony. Parish priests in the United States in particular do it routinely. Everyone was breaking the rules.
Francis could have left it there. The rule stays on the Vatican books, but he turns a blind eye to all the people breaking it. But Francis decided to change the rule, allowing women and all the "people of God" (ex populo Dei, in the text of the actual rule change) to take part.
Put aside the theology of the move and Francis's decision a study in brave leadership, which managers and entrepreneurs of all faiths can learn from. For one thing, by changing the rule Francis is visibly putting his mark on how he wants his organization managed. A rule change reflects his belief. He wants a more inclusive ceremony and tone. Secular observers should see the parallels in strong leaders trying to imbue organizations with the culture they want in their teams and companies.
Rather than be a place where rules are open to interpretation because of vagaries, Francis tackled this issue head-on and chose to be clear. This is part of his (relatively speaking, for a Pope) straight-forward communication style, unusual for a priest who came from a religious order that prompted the derogatory term "jesuitical." Nothing sneaky here. Employees and team members generally want to do what their bosses want, but they can't if those desires are never clear. Unambigous communication is vital to leadership and organizational success.
Francis is inviting challenge and knows there will be dissent. Leaving well enough alone would have kept his traditionalist critics at bay. But, again, he wants his Church to follow his vision, and he wants that to be very clear. These are, in many ways, his rules. Kiss his ring -- kiss somewhere else, if you'd like -- but he sets the tone and makes the decisions. Pope Francis is the macher.
As if you weren't sure who is the boss, and who is driving the decision, Francis took an added step to make that clear. The Vatican, in publishing the rule change, also published a letter Francis wrote to the Vatican department in charge of these rules officially requesting it. There's no sign of long, collaborative deliberation here, or passing around from committee to committee, like the worst of lawmaking and corporate governance. Ironically, the Vatican can be pretty Byzantine. This change wasn't. The request for the change was signed simply, "Franciscus." Francis owns this decision.
You can agree or disagree with the outcomes, and politics, of Pope Francis. But you can't argue with the way he leads. That kind of example should be the answer to many business leaders' prayers.