Pope Francis was a surprise choice for many as the new spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.  The selection process is not, of course, quite what might be practised in our corporate world.

His appointment, although differing in process, means that he now must decide how to make it clear what his leadership will mean for an organisation that has suffered more scandals, inappropriate behaviour and bad press recently than most corporates face in a lifetime. Corporate culture is a massive force that has an effect on the behaviour of those within its field.  Not everybody is affected in the same way and the resulting behaviour is not guaranteed.  It is, though, a force that causes an identity to emerge and unwritten rules to be created.

The way we do things round here” as Deal and Kennedy described it in their iconic 1982 book, "Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life". Religion, any religion, is a classic corporate culture.  Beliefs at its heart, values about what is right and wrong and a set of behaviours, language, rites and rituals all of which both maintain the culture and create the sense of identity that distinguishes its population.

If you want to change the culture (and most would agree there are some things that need changing in the Catholic Church) then, as leader, you need to operate outside the existing culture in order to not be subsumed by it.  The tricky part is not being too much of an outsider, since this will alienate you from your team. The paradox of corporate culture change is that those who are part of the culture are the least qualified to choose someone to change it.

It’s the thing that keeps them doing what they know how to do and, in some cases, they will be unaware of the things which are so fixed in the culture they are just normal life (even though others do it differently).  Why do the British form an orderly queue and get so upset when someone breaks that rule? The stories emerging from the Vatican already suggest a significant change in intent.  The early signs may be small but they are symbolic – a lesson in new leadership in itself.

If you are to be seen as a leader not a manager then you must take on the mantel of changing things.  Managers maintain, leaders change.  That is not to say management are wrong and leadership is right.  Most, if not all, corporate leaders manage and lead – the interesting question is what percentage of their job is about managing and what is about leading. His holiness has apparently shocked and scared some of the current members of at least the Vatican culture (Head Office to most of us in the corporate world) with some behaviours that make it clear new times are upon them.  Massimo Franco, writing in the newspaper Corriere Della Sera (The Evening Courier), said "the era of the Pope-King and of the Vatican court is over". There are some enchanting examples of a man who seems to both accept the enormity of the role and yet maintain his values of humility and humanity.

Not many new leaders (particularly new Popes) pop back to the hotel to pay their bill after they have been chosen as the leader of 1.2 billion people.  His message to his colleagues in Argentina to not bother coming to the equivalent of the annual conference but to use the money to help the poor speaks volumes.  Deal and Kennedy talk about “myths and legends “ in corporate culture.  Stories that, whether true or not, symbolize either the existing or the new culture and send a message to those that hear them. When presented with the traditional papal red cape trimmed with ermine used on ceremonial occasions and worn by his predecessor he is reported to have said, "No thank you, Monsignore.

You put it on instead. Carnival time is over!" and, when introduced to his new accommodation "There's room for 300 people here. "I don't need all this space." The new Pope’s job is to bring about change and yet uphold the true values of the organisation he has been elected to lead.  Not many corporate leaders face this big a challenge – and starting at 76 must be a positive message for the older population who keep reminding the new young bucks they have plenty of wisdom to offer.  If you are the new leader then starting with Head Office is a good idea – that will let the rest of the organisation know there’s a new way to do things.

Pope Francis’s appointment is only days old but whatever your religious beliefs, values and inclinations there is plenty to learn from this emerging case study.

Clive Hook
Programme Director
ClearWorth – What are the Five Fundamentals Questions for Leaders?

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.