This post was originally published on the Forbes.com blog maintained since 2014 by Craig Hatkoff and Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-founders of the Disruptor Foundation. The Off White Papers began as a separate blog and now is routinely featured in Forbes’ Leadership section and others including Entrepreneurship and Technology. For more commentary, please follow @offwhites on Twitter.
By Craig Hatkoff and Irwin Kula
Every CEO is an evangelizer. So those struggling with how to deal with the pressures of disruption would do well to closely follow Pope Francis. His first bit of sage advice for every CEO is: “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” Last April Pope Francis received not one but two awards at our annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. He was honored in absentia with the Adam Smith Prize, presented by the Harvard Business Review; his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) was also recognized as Book of the Year for innovation. Pope Francis? Adam Smith? Disruptive innovator? Really?
“An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” – Pope Francis from Evangelii Gaudium
At first blush this might seem like a bit of stretch but our guiding light, Clay Christensen, and HBR editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius felt the Pope was an inspired choice and agreed to sign our letter to the Pope informing him of these recognitions. The recently concluded synod on non-traditional families and the Church simply has reinforced our earlier view that when it comes to innovation this guy is pretty epic.
Think about what the Pope has done to transform a 2,000 year old brand—a really BIG business with issues. Like any incumbent CEO the Pope has had to confront a raft of challenges such as embattled business models, shrinking margins, loss of market share, attracting and retaining personnel and the crush of legacy systems.
In the first six months of his Papacy, Francis squarely addressed the first critical question any CEO needs to ask about her company: what are the “jobs to get done?” He decisively articulated the job of the Church—serving society’s most vulnerable. In an unusually candid self-critique the Pope shifted the Church’s culture from, in his words one of “institutional self-preservation” back to its core mission. In the parlance of disruptive innovation theory, Francis focused on the products and services not only from the point of view of the decreasing number of existing consumers of Catholicism, particularly in the West, but also the much larger market of non-consumers—the non-practicing Catholics and non-Catholics. Predictably this disruption has created both excitement and energy as well as anxiety and resistance from incumbent management and conservative laity. The key to the Pope’s success as an innovator might just be that he leads by example. Rather than changing any creed, dogma or theology—that would inevitably create unnecessary tension and resistance—the Pope’s actions and practices simply embody the genuine mission of the church. Theology will then follow practice. Here are a few our our favorite things Pope Francis has done:
1. He ditched the Popemobile and rides around in a 2008 Ford Focus hatchback.
2. He passed on to moving into the luxurious papal residence in the Apostolic Palace and lives in a modest apartment in tha Casa Santa Marta guest house.
3. “Who am I to judge?” In five words the Pope completely changed the attitude and tone toward gays.
4. He broke with tradition by washing the feet of twelve disabled people including several women and a Muslim man.
5. He initiated a multi-year Synod of Bishops on the Family encouraging frank and open discussion on controversial issues such as communion for the divorced and remarried, same-sex relationships, co-habitating couples–and even polygamists in Africa.
Not surprisingly the Pope’s new tone has created resistance and anxiety from conservative Catholics—both laity and clergy. But lest anyone think that this Pope doesn’t exert his authority and know how to take out strident critics note well that Francis removed American Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Holy See’s Supreme Court demoting him to a mostly ceremonial post of Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Burke very publicly and repeatedly expressed his dismay at the Pope’s new approach and the uncertainty generated by robust conversation on “long settled matters.” Francis also “retired” Cardinal Francis George as Archbishop of Chicago replacing him with Bishop Blase J. Cupich, an unknown and obscure Bishop from the small diocese of Spokane, Washington who shares the Pope’s sensibility. None were more surprised by the appointment than Bishop Cupich himself who never met the Pope and said he had no idea how he was selected. Cupich was quoted in the New York Times saying, “Maybe someday over a nice glass of Chianti I’ll ask him.”’
There is nothing new about strategically replacing opponents. But Francis’ brilliance of simply changing his tone and actions rather than Church law, dogma and theology is that it leaves his critics with little room to maneuver and nothing solid around which to organize opposition. As outgoing Cardinal George recently lamented about Francis, “He says wonderful things but he doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do?” The Pope seems to understand that it is is hard to attack deliberate ambiguity and uncertainty especially when it is mission-driven: serving society’s most vulnerable. For his opponents there is no “there there”—at least for the time being. So for CEOs trying to turn an ocean liner in a harbor it might be wise to add Pope Francis to your google alerts. Lead by example and live the change you want to see in your company. Be like the Pope and stop pontificating.
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