Pope Francis: A Transformational CEO

There's this complex, global "business," thousands of years old, that finds itself steeped in its own history, embroiled in controversy and struggling to reconnect with its base while remaining relevant in a quickly changing landscape. Sound familiar?

Pope-FrancisEnter a new leader: Pope Francis. In his year leading the Catholic Church, he recaptured segments of disenfranchised people and completely re-energized a moribund behemoth. According to an April 2014 article in Inc. magazine, Pope Francis’ approval ratings with American Catholics hovers at 88 percent, and nearly three-quarters of Americans generally view him with favor. He also made it to the top of Fortune’s 2014 list of the World’s Greatest Leaders and was named Person of the Year by Time for 2013.

Having worked with many CEOs who are transformational leaders, I see themes in the Pope’s words and actions that resonate with hallmarks of transformational leadership in the business world. As Dan Hilferty, CEO of Independence Blue Cross, put it, “Pope Francis might, in fact, be charged with the greatest corporate turnaround in the history of man.”

“Pope Francis demonstrates that strength and humility can live in the same neighborhood.”

In my view, here are three key strategies the Pope has used that are simple, yet nuanced and powerful.

Change the conversation. If the course, so far, is any indication, it seems that changing the platform of conversation can indeed be a game-changer. Pope Francis essentially said, “We can’t go forward if we can’t talk”—and then shifted the emphasis of the conversation’s content. In little more than a year, he turned the gyroscope to allow a more complex level of dialogue. He also invited a mix of voices to the table. Rather than brushing issues of controversy under the carpet, the Pope acknowledges them and seeks to do better.

“Pope Francis demonstrates that strength and humility can live in the same neighborhood,” says Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup.

Change the tone. Right out of the gate, Francis profoundly shifted the tone with five words: “Who am I to judge?” One of his first moves was to institute an inclusive process of requesting input from the dioceses around the world. He also boldly redefined the Roman Curia’s role and its players, changing out people in positions of influence to bring more diversity and openness and to create a forum for dialogue. All of these actions signaled a new leadership model that invites and includes diverse points of view.

Connect with the people. Pope Francis has shown the people in numerous ways that he is one of them. Whether it is living in a humble apartment, wearing plain black shoes or driving his old car rather than taking the Pope-mobile, his choices convey that he is an ordinary citizen who understands the concerns of ordinary people. He knows the power of symbolism. He’s touched the institution in a personal way, and he speaks and acts in a manner with which people can connect. “He clearly gets that messaging and appearances set the foundation for the seismic shift required for transformational change,” says Hilferty.

From a succession standpoint, Pope Francis has brought to the Catholic Church what every board strives for during the CEO succession process: the right leadership at the right time for the right reasons. While his predecessor was an academic whose leadership approach was more “protect and defend,” Francis used many levers to open the doors for input, reflection and accountability. With numerous paths to leadership, there’s likely to be a difference between a leader who came up the ladder from the factory floor versus the finance department.

While what Pope Francis accomplished is nothing short of amazing, this story is still being written. He faces the delicate and complex task of being a non-divisive change agent. How does he engage one segment without alienating another? Does this reframed conversation have legs? Time will tell. But in the meantime, we’d all do well to glean lessons from what he’s shown us to this point—with all its wisdom and grit.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events