Some might say that it wouldn’t be prudent to mix business and religion.  I’d argue the opposite.

On March 13, the Roman Catholic Church elected a new leader: Pope Francis. From the start, he has created quite a stir. As a Catholic, I have a vested interest in his new role, but anyone– Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist– can learn from his leadership style.

Pope FrancisHaving witnessed and been a part of leadership changes at some of the world’s top consulting firms, I noticed as I watched the transition in Vatican leadership how fundamentally different the shift was– and what great lessons professional services firms could take away from the example Pope Francis was providing.

Here are my observations:

 1.    Know who you are and what your priorities are.

Before his installation, Jorge Bergoglio, bishop of Argentina, selected the name Francis for his papacy.  In 500 years, no pope has selected the name of St. Francis of Assisi, a noble turned beggar, as his name. Pope Francis chose the name to set the tone and demonstrate his priorities for the Church: humility and service to the poor.  This was not a focus chosen in committee or one that resulted from strategic planning. It was the result of a lifetime focused on living the Gospel and serving the downtrodden in the slums of Argentina. Many would argue his priorities should have been the abuse scandal, women priests, gay rights or contraception. These are all important issues within the Church, but they are divisive. Serving the poor is the Gospel call and a positive unifying vision for both progressives and conservatives.

One of the biggest challenges for professional services firms is focus. Partnership structures and desired growth present opportunity costs. Most firms are loath to choose a focus on a market, capability or attribute for fear of giving up growth opportunities.  In doing so, they choose the lowest common denominator and relinquish the chance to create something unique and meaningful.  Focusing and prioritizing provides clarity and creates energy. Pope Francis makes no attempt to be all things to all people. His focus is clear, and in his first three weeks he energized the Church in a way it had not been in decades.

 2.    It is not what you say; it is what you do.

This is cliché, but it is so true in this case. Pope Francis has 2.4 billion Catholic eyes on him. Shortly after the puff of white smoke, the pope addressed the throngs of people in St. Peter’s Square (and around the globe). This was the world’s first glimpse of the pontiff.  What did Pope Francis do?  He rejected the ornate trappings of papal tradition (exquisite red and gold vestments) and appeared in a simple white cassock. He broke with another tradition by refusing to use a platform to elevate himself above the cardinals standing with him as he was introduced to the world.  Instead, he said,  “I’ll stay down here.”  He kept his comments short and spoke only in Italian, whereas most popes use Latin. And, before he blessed the crowd, he humbly asked the crowd to pray for him!  This pope is a humble man. He takes public transport every day.  He has chosen to live in an apartment instead of the papal palace, has passed on a chauffeured limousine, has paid his own hotel bill and has cooked his own meals.

Firms spend countless hours developing the right brand, tagline and creative communications. These things are important, but they are a distant second to the firm’s culture.  Every successful firm is built on a clear vision, strong values and the bold actions of its founder and subsequent leaders. Brand is nothing more than a firm’s reputation, and that reputation is shaped by the behaviors of its people. People model the behaviors of leaders and behave in a way that is consistent with the rewards they receive. Firms that spend time creating messages inconsistent with leaders’ actions and rewards are doomed to fail.

 3.    If you aren’t making people mad, you aren’t doing anything.

Pope Francis was installed just in time for Holy Week (the week preceding Easter). It is a time filled with solemnity, tradition and ritual.   Each year on Holy Thursday, priests, bishops, cardinals and the pope, reenact the Last Supper and wash the feet of 12 people during mass, just as Jesus did with his disciples. Church tradition and law dictate that the feet to be wash are all men, since Jesus’ disciples were all men.

What did Pope Francis do?  He washed the feet of women in a juvenile detention center.  Not only were the recipients of his grace women, but one of the women was Muslim.  The controversy he created was enormous!  A day later, Francis reached out with friendship to “Muslim brothers and sisters” during a Good Friday procession dedicated to Christians who were suffering the results of terrorism, war and religious fanaticism in the Middle East.

On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis once again wore a simple white cassock and presided over a shortened mass.  The new pope has made clear that he prefers his masses short and to the point.  He was even caught checking his watch during his March 19 installation ceremony.  Pope Francis is establishing a pattern of not only challenging church tradition, but also Church law. And he has lots of latitude. After all, he is the pope.

As a firm leader, you too have more latitude than you may think. Sometimes it is necessary to slaughter some sacred cows.  Doing so shows vision; it demonstrates that it is safe to take risks, and it encourages people to grow.  Often, operating “in the past” keeps firms from challenging themselves to reach higher and achieve latent potential. Making significant changes to the status quo, even though it can be upsetting, can unleash opportunity and the creativity to achieve it.

Take away

Leadership inspiration can come from many places.   Pope Francis has demonstrated that clear, decisive, even controversial actions, can fundamentally and quickly shift the trajectory of an organization.  The Catholic Church is plagued by a massive abuse scandal, is accused of being behind the times and it is losing members. By setting a clear vision, speaking through actions and taking risks, Pope Francis has reinvigorated the church and set a strong example of leadership that anyone could benefit by following.

Be prudent.

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