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Pope Francis and the discipline to win the long game

6 min read


This article was adapted from “Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future” by Steven Krupp and Paul J.H. Schoemaker. Krupp is senior managing partner and Schoemaker is founder and executive chairman of Decision Strategies International, a consulting and training firm specializing in leadership development and strategy formulation. Schoemaker also serves as research director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

In July 2013, 3 million devotees, mostly young, swarmed to Copacabana Beach to hear the newly elected leader of the Roman Catholic Church on his first official tour. The Catholic Church was at a pivotal moment in its history. Brazil has the largest number of Catholics in the world but between 2000 and 2010, the church’s share slipped from three-fourths of the nation’s population to about two-thirds. Pope Francis knew the challenges facing his organization, not only in Brazil but throughout the world. The pope faced a turnaround situation that called for a deep change of hearts and minds in a two-millennia-old institution steeped in tradition, dogma and hierarchy.

From day one, Pope Francis eschewed the costumes, palaces and pageantry of his predecessors. On this trip to Brazil, he carried his own bag and traveled in a modest compact van. During a rush-hour traffic jam, he climbed out to walk among the poor shanty dwellers of Rio de Janeiro. On the flight back to Rome, he called a surprise press conference. For more than 80 minutes, he answered journalists’ unvarnished questions, no topic off-limits.

It was during this trip to Brazil that the Pope first showed the world that he is not just a towering spiritual guide and man of deep faith. He is a true strategic leader — unafraid to challenge long-held conventions of the Church, able to look at his organization from the outside-in and set on making visible and symbolic moves to rejuvenate the Catholic Church.

Americans will have the rare chance to see Pope Francis in action when he visits Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families this fall. His visit is expected to draw more than 2 million faithful. But business leaders, too, should take this historic event as an opportunity to learn from what is perhaps one of the greatest strategic leaders of our time. Just as Francis is metaphorically opening up a window to let in fresh perspectives from ordinary people and new advisors, and looking in the mirror to refocus on the mission of the Church, so too must executives challenge conventional beliefs to win the long game.

Based on Pope Francis’ example, here are six key questions leaders should ask to evaluate how they are challenging themselves and others:

1. Do you regularly seek out diverse views to see multiple sides of an important or complex issue?

Pope Francis’ provocative declaration concerning people who are gay, “Who am I to judge?”, is a plea to transcend bias by seeing people as complete humans rather than just in terms of sexual orientation. The pope is refocusing the Church’s humanity and emphasizing connections his predecessors downplayed.

2. What practices have you put into place to offset complacency?

It has been reported that the pope ventures out at night in Rome, dressed as regular priest, to meet with homeless men and women of the city. Pope Francis also made headlines last year when he became the first pope to wash the feet of women and a Muslim man during a [Holy] Thursday ceremony.

3. How deeply do you challenge long-standing assumptions, traditions and conventional wisdom?

Pope Francis has not been shy about breaking with tradition if he feels it does not sync with the true mission of the Church. The pope decided not to move into the official papal apartments, instead choosing to reside in a modest Vatican “hotel,” where he once noted he is more “visible to people” and can “lead a normal life.” Similarly, the pope has shunned the popemobile used by previous popes, instead driving himself around in a 30-year-old secondhand car.

4. Do you encourage both constructive criticism and creative thinking to surface new perspectives and better options?

After news broke that the U.S. and Cuba were working to normalize their diplomatic relationship, it emerged that Pope Francis had played an instrumental role in urging the two country’s leaders to mend their relationship. President Obama later publicly thanked the pope for giving them the impetus to move forward, saying, “I want to thank his Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”

5. Do you purposely reframe important problems from several angles to understand their root cause?

At the advice of eight cardinals, Pope Francis appointed a new council to deal with pedophile priests under secular law and show more compassion to their victims. The council includes outside experts to guide the church in protecting the well-being of its followers, especially the innocent and vulnerable, not just its own reputation.

6. Are you able to confront your own biases as well as those of your team?

The Institute for the Works for Religion (IOR), commonly referred to as the Vatican Bank, is the privately held financial institution inside Vatican City. Called “the most secret bank in the world,” it has been embroiled by scandal and investigated for illicit activities. The pope has challenged the practices of this less-than-holy institution by appointing an outside advisory council to reform operations. “Whatever it ends up being — whether a bank or a charitable fund — transparency and honesty are essential,” he said.

Leading by example, Pope Francis encourages followers to be of service, have the courage to go against the tide and act with humility, compassion and transparency. The pope has prompted a conversation about what really matters in religion and faith. His actions allow us all to witness the power of a leader who challenges beliefs that have outlived their usefulness and undermine the credibility of the institution he leads.

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