January 6, 2014

Five Lessons for CEOs from Pope Francis I

By Laura Rittenhouse – Originally published on Forbes.com

L.J. Rittenhouse, CEO of Rittenhouse Rankings, author of Investing Between the Lines.

Pope Francis answers questions during a news conference.

Pope Francis answers questions during a news conference.

Reporters in Time Magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year article described the Catholic Church at the beginning of 2013 as “steeped in order, snarled by bureaucracy and weighted by its scandals.”  In other words, it looked like the U.S. financial system and Federal Government.

Yet in just nine months, Pope Francis I has “captured the imaginations of millions who had given up hoping for the church.”  He is creating a climate not just of reformation, but also transformation.  Indeed, Time sees Francis striving to find “a way out of the 20th century culture wars,” that diverted the church and other institutions from their true purposes.

Time credits the Pope’s “masterly use of 21st century tools to perform his 1stcentury office.”  Five are described below:

  1. Focus on Mission:  Pope Francis has “elevated the healing mission of the church” over the “doctrinal police work” of his predecessors. This mission grew clear when the former Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina chose to be named after St. Francis of Assisi, a 12th century leader sainted for his merciful actions.Francis recasts church rituals when he states, “Communion is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Time notes the irony in a man holding “an office deemed to be infallible” who exposes perfection as “the enemy of the good”. Indeed, Pope Francis seems to embrace paradox.  He lives a simple life as a “religious superstar,” choosing to live in the Vatican’s more humble guest apartments and not in the Apostolic Palace. Red Prada shoes and golden crosses have vanished.
  2. Use media to propagate symbolic messages:   After his election as Bishop of Rome, Francis returned to his modest hotel, amid a mob of photographers, and paid his bill. Images of this moment and others washing the feet of convicts, embracing a deformed man, and striding vigorously across St. Peter’s Square wearing his lead-plated cross flood the Internet. These actions show a man living authentic values of personal accountability, simplicity and mercy.  Francis becomes an action hero when he repeats a favorite mantra: “Argue less and accomplish more.”
  3. Reset Context:  Time repeats the five words that describe the new Pope’s efforts to reset the context of the Church: “Who am I to judge?”  This humility creates a space where the stickiness of church doctrine can coexist with changing “its tone.” He forges “a pragmatic path to reach those disillusioned by their church’s emphasis on strict dos and don’ts.”This path serves the poor, a mission that embraces charity and also social justice.  “I prefer a church,” Francis says, “which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security.”
  4. Choose Personnel as Policy:  To change the culture of the church, Francis announced new job qualifications for bishops.  They are now expected to be: “gentle, patient and merciful, animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.”  To show he means business, Francis suspended a bishop for overseeing a $42.5 million renovation of a church residence that included a $20,500 bathtub.He appointed a new head of the Vatican Almoner and told him, “Sell your desk, you don’t need it.  You need to get out of the Vatican.  Don’t wait for people to come ringing.”  This on-the-ground-ministry was evident whenthe Vatican delivered free phone cards to Eritrean immigrants so they could call home and report they were safe after their crowded boat capsized on the way to Italy.
  5. Confront Tough Issues: Time describes Francis’ “talent for empathy and engaging people in conversation.”  He also is recognized for making astute assessments of others and “leading productive meetings.” The deployment of these managerial gifts is evident in the progress made in tackling tough issues over the past nine months:a)    Corruption at the Vatican Bank:  Focusing on initiatives to counter money laundering and increase transparency of the Vatican’s finances, the bank in October issued its first annual report, since it was founded in 1942.b)     Sex Abuse Crisis:  In December, a group of eight consultative bishops named a new commission on sex abuse intended “to focus more on the behavioral problems at the core” of this crisis and less on “the legal challenges.”

    c)     Economic Inequality:  In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Francis questioned the factual basis for trickle-down economics and the belief “that, encouraged by a free market, this will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”  He echoed concerns expressed by Warren Buffett, as well as Nobel Laureates Edmund Phelps and Robert Schiller, who argue that capitalism is at risk when it ignores societal needs.

Francis is a realist.  He honors the past even as he strives to reset the church’s context.  Relying on church doctrine when debating topics like female priests, abortion and gay marriage, he urges his critics “to agree to disagree”, so they can work together on “the urgent mission of spreading mercy.”

To promote pastoral care, Francis stopped granting priests honorific titles, which “tantalize” them with the “prospect of a career” and money. Rather than aspire to become officials or state functionaries managing structures and organizations, he wants them to focus first on serving “the People of God.”

This self-serving temptation also infects the high priests of Wall Street and Washington D.C., as they manage systems that promote corporatism, discourage grassroots innovation and benefit a few at the expense of thriving civil societies. Can our secular leaders learn from Time’s Person of the Year?  In 2014, their mission is clear:  it’s time to create a more inclusive, dynamic context for capitalism that strengthens society and our economic lives.


Connect with me on Twitter @LJRittenhouse and for more information visit the Rittenhouse Rankings website.