The Catholic Church is a huge business, spending nearly 200 billion in the US annually. The Church employs nearly one million Americans, not only in the propagation of the faith, as a leading health care and educational provider, and as the manager of huge real estate holdings across the world. The legal issues the Church faces are well documented, and so is the erosion of its membership base.
When the College of Cardinals elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in March, he walked into a job so difficult, his predecessor became the first Pontiff in centuries to actually retire from a job that came with the understanding that one would die with his boots (actually red slippers) on. And for a pope famously known as "God's Rottweiler" for his ecclesiastical street fighting skills, it was a wholly unexpected move, that seemed to indicated how damaged a brand his successor inherited.
In the West, it seems the decline began long before the salacious scandals. Those of us who belong to the tail end of the postwar "baby boom" saw an institution in constant turmoil and transition growing up. The rituals that made the Church both majestic and fear inspiring , were replaced by mass in the local vernacular and nuns strumming guitars and priests abandoning their vocations. In a world that was engaged in a cultural revolution in terms of gender equality, the Church seemed trapped in a never ending cycle of debate over birth control and abortion. Where before it was an advantage for change to occur very slowly in a two thousand year old institution, it seemed ridiculous in the modern media age.
The leadership and certainty of Pope John Paul II, was admirable and inspiring in helping to conclude the Cold War. But as age and infirmity caught up with Karol Wojtyla it became increasingly obvious that this admirable man , had serious deficiencies as a CEO. The Vatican response to the sex scandals was tone deaf in terms of Public Relations, and scandalous in a way that made the Watergate Cover Up seem innocent in comparison. The sense of entitlement that pollutes political regimes, was an easy virus for the Church to catch. For two centuries of history had elevated the priesthood to a mentality similar to that of Richard Nixon. To paraphrase, it could not be illegal if a priest committed an egregious sin. It was a mindset that seemed especially repugnant coming from an institution increasingly anxious to excommunicate members for perceived doctrinal impurity in matters of sexual morality.
When the Sacred College elected Pope Francis, he assumed the leadership of 1.2 billion Catholics, and a brand in steep decline. Months later, it seems hard to recall how damaged the Church was in view of its client base and public opinion. Though its still early in his pontificate, its obvious that there has been a breathtaking change in public perception. There are some very compelling reasons to admire the Pope as a religious figure .The lessons of his tenure as a CEO provide equally compelling lessons for managers to follow.
- Leadership by Example
Leadership is about setting the right example. Francis has shown that his example matches his words. He "walks the talk". Rather than cruising about in a throne carried by eight Swiss Guards, he is seen driving a beat up 1984 Renault with nearly 200,000 miles on the odometer. He carries his own baggage on flights, paid his own hotel bill, and turned down living in the opulent papal apartments.
- Focusing on the Basics
Napoleon spoke of Leaders being "merchants of hope " Francis is not a doctrinal liberal as some claim, but he has returned the focus of the church to its core purpose of providing hope and comfort, "a field hospital for souls." He is returning to the basics of what Jesus would say in response to the modern world, by both actions and message, without confusing Christ's message with centuries of revision by man.
- Changing the Story
Francis has changed the lead paragraph of the Church's story. Rather than continuing a narrative defined by scandals or polarizing positions, the message is about service rather than condemnation. The pope recognizes that the church is there to provide pastoral services, and he has personally adopted a populist and human approach. He has said many things most have thought , whether its tolerance for different lifestyles, or stating that religious fundamentalism is “an illness” that doesn’t serve Jesus Christ, instead “frightening” people and pushing them away from God. We see him taking a human approach whether it's telephoning a pregnant single Italian woman to counsel her, or washing the feet of two women in a youth prison. His message is one of inclusion.
- Expanding the Client Base
The numbers speak for themselves. The Church has not only lost many former members, but has lost traction amongst the young. Without new clients, any business eventually atrophies. Decades of harping on birth control and abortion, has left the church irrelevant to many in terms of speaking in terms of daily life. Francis has recognized the generational implications.of this period of drift, and the irrelevancy of Church teaching to large segments of the population, not only members of the younger generation, but those who are their parents and grandparents.
- Restoring Brand Value
Many brands lose their way . A classic example of restoration is Apple, where years of several approaches in both design and marketing took the company to the verge of extinction. The return of Steve Jobs, meant the return of Apple to its roots of cutting edge technology, ease of use, and intelligent product design. The approach Francis has taken is one that seeks to return the Catholic brand to it's basics, based in strong ethics, modesty, and social justice. Like any troubled brand name, the return of Church teaching to its foundations, promises to restore the Catholic brand's good name, and it's enduring value.
MANY BLESSINGS - NOEL