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The Catholic Church, Inc. – An Executive Leadership Rebrand for the Vatican

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The Catholic Church, Inc.

An Executive Leadership Rebrand for the Vatican

Three business principles could vault the Vatican to the next level.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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In early 2011, technology giant Nokia gained a new CEO, Stephen Elop. Inheriting a company rife with problems, Mr. Elop penned an internal memo (later posted on The Wall Street Journal website) that announced sweeping changes in the company’s strategic course.

He wrote: “There is a pertinent story about a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea. He woke up one night from a loud explosion, which suddenly set his entire oil platform on fire. In mere moments, he was surrounded by flames. Through the smoke and heat, he barely made his way out of the chaos to the platform’s edge. When he looked down over the edge, all he could see were the dark, cold, foreboding Atlantic waters.

“As the fire approached him, the man had mere seconds to react. He could stand on the platform, and inevitably be consumed by the burning flames. Or, he could plunge 30 meters in to the freezing waters. The man was standing upon a ‘burning platform,’ and he needed to make a choice.

“He decided to jump. It was unexpected. In ordinary circumstances, the man would never consider plunging into icy waters. But these were not ordinary times—his platform was on fire. The man survived the fall and the waters. After he was rescued, he noted that a ‘burning platform’ caused a radical change in his behaviour.

“We too, are standing on a ‘burning platform,’ and we must decide how we are going to change our behaviour.

“Over the past few months, I’ve shared with you what I’ve heard from our shareholders, operators, developers, suppliers and from you. Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned and what I have come to believe.

“I have learned that we are standing on a burning platform.

“And, we have more than one explosion—we have multiple points of scorching heat that are fuelling a blazing fire around us.”

The memo went on to describe a new direction for Nokia.

The Catholic Church could also be likened to the man on the burning platform, staring down at the dark, cold, foreboding Atlantic waters as a fire rages behind it. For decades, it has attempted without success to put out multiple proverbial fires: widespread sex scandals, nepotism, cover ups, leaked documents, financial corruption, division and a global identity crisis.

But then came the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (a first in over 600 years), and the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who took the name Pope Francis, on March 13, 2013.

Francis seems to recognize that a radical approach must be brought to the Vatican’s problems. As with a company, there are certain qualities that the pope is exhibiting as its “CEO” that could bring it back from the brink.

Catholic Church, Inc.

The Vatican is a complex and multi-faceted institution, with the pope filling many different roles. First, the Catholic Church considers itself to be the world’s oldest church, tracing its roots back to the early centuries of established Christianity. Pope Francis is the pastor of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.

Also, the Vatican is a sovereign nation, so in this way the pope is a head of state who maintains diplomatic relations with numerous countries. The Vatican City State’s official website says this about the tiny nation’s population and size: “The population of Vatican City is about 800 people, of whom over 450 have Vatican citizenship, while the rest have permission to reside there, either temporarily or permanently, without the benefit of citizenship.”

The website also stated: “Vatican City covers a territory of 0.44 square kilometres, that is 44 hectares (roughly 100 acres). It is partly surrounded by walls and stretches into St Peter’s Square…Because Vatican City is so small, several Departments and offices belonging to the Holy See are situated in buildings around Rome…According to the Lateran Treaty, these buildings enjoy the same status, recognized by international law, as embassies and foreign diplomatic missions abroad.”

The church can also be considered a corporation—one that Pope Francis is urgently trying to repair.

If the Catholic Church were a company, it would be the world’s largest. A National Post article concluded that its total assets cannot even be calculated: “It is impossible to calculate the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. In truth, the church itself likely could not answer that question, even if it wished to.

“Its investments and spending are kept secret. Its real estate and art have not been properly evaluated, since the church would never sell them.

“There is no doubt, however, that between the church’s priceless art, land, gold and investments across the globe, it is one of the wealthiest institutions on Earth.”

All of the above roles pull the pope in different directions, but strong evidence shows a top priority is strengthening the church as a corporation.

Inherited Problems

The organization Pope Francis inherited was in dire need of radical changes. The Economist magazine summarized the situation this way: “Business schools regularly teach their students about great ‘turnaround CEOs’ who breathe new life into dying organisations: figures such as IBM’s Lou Gerstner, Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne and Apple’s Steve Jobs. Now Harvard Business School needs to add another case study: Jorge Bergoglio, the man who has rebranded [the Catholic Church] in barely a year.

“When Pope Francis celebrated his first Easter as CEO, just after being appointed, the world’s oldest multinational was in crisis. Pentecostal competitors were stealing market share in the emerging world, including in Latin America, where Francis ran the Argentine office. In its traditional markets, scandals were scaring off customers and demoralising the salesforce. Recruitment was difficult, despite the offer of lifetime employment in a tough economy. The firm’s finances were also a mess. Leaked documents revealed the Vatican bank as a vortex of corruption and incompetence. The board was divided and weak. Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first pope to resign for 600 years…”

Even the name Francis is significant, and speaks to repairing the Roman church, as noted by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan: “The meaning of the name he chose should not be underestimated. Cardinal Bergoglio is a Jesuit and the Jesuits were founded by St. Ignatius Loyola, who said he wanted to be like St. Francis of Assisi.

“One of the most famous moments in St. Francis’s life is the day he was passing by the church of St. Damiano. It was old and near collapse. From St. Bonaventure’s ‘Life of Francis of Assisi’: ‘Inspired by the Spirit, he went inside to pray. Kneeling before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with great fervor and consolation…While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord’s cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”’ Francis was amazed ‘at the sound of this astonishing voice, since he was alone in the church.’ He set himself to obeying the command.

“Go and repair my house, which is falling into ruin. Could the new pope’s intentions be any clearer? The Catholic Church in 2013 is falling into ruin. It has been damaged by scandal and the scandals arose from arrogance, conceit, clubbiness and an assumption that the special can act in particular ways, that they may make mistakes but it’s understandable, and if it causes problems the church will take care of it.”

Pope Francis has recognized these issues, and is taking extreme measures to strengthen his nearly 2,000-year-old church. He seems determined to turn the ship around, redirecting its course and pulling the Roman Catholic Church back from the precipice of irrelevancy in this modern world.

In doing so, the pope is employing three business principles that will help repair the Catholic Church and push it to the next level.

(1) Restructuring Management

The first business approach being used in the Vatican is a major restructuring of leadership. The top man in the Catholic Church has shown his willingness to revamp key elements of the Vatican hierarchy, even bringing in outside management consultants to help clean house. Sweeping changes are being enacted. The status quo is being broken up.

The Catholic News Service reported this in late 2013 about the pope’s decision to bring in a high-powered management team to assess the church’s situation: “In an effort to streamline and modernize its communications structures and bring its accounting practices in line with international standards, the Vatican hired two international consulting agencies.

“The global management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the Netherlands-based financial and administrative consultation firm KPMG were hired…”

“The new partnerships were initiatives of the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organization of the economic-administrative structure of the Holy See, a panel of business and legal experts Pope Francis created in July to help the Vatican simplify and better coordinate its scattered resources, budgets, properties and assets.

“McKinsey & Company was hired to provide recommendations for an ‘integrated plan’ that would help make the Holy See’s communications’ outlets more ‘efficient and modern,’ the Vatican statement said.”

In a late 2013 interview, Francis told the Italian magazine La Repubblica the kinds of systemic issues he will strive to correct (emphasis added): “Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy…there are sometimes courtiers in the curia, but the curia as a whole is another thing. It is what in an army is called the quartermaster’s office, it manages the services that serve the Holy See. But it has one defect: it is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it.

(2) Humble Yet Determined

The pope’s determined approach has also come with an appearance of humility, which has befuddled news commentators and analysts. On the surface, it appears paradoxical. Is he humble, or authoritative and demanding? Most have preferred to focus on his modest approach to the office. Note this longer excerpt from Ms. Noonan’s article: “I’ll tell you how it looks: like one big unexpected gift for the church and the world.

“Everything about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election was a surprise—his age, the name he took, his mien as he was presented to the world. He was plainly dressed, a simple white cassock, no regalia, no finery. He stood there on the balcony like a straight soft pillar and looked out at the crowd…”

“Then the telling moment about the prayer. Before he gave a blessing he asked for a blessing: He asked the crowd to pray for him. He bent his head down and the raucous, cheering square suddenly became silent, as everyone prayed. I thought, ‘…he’s humble.’”

“He loves the poor and not in an abstract way. He gave the cardinal’s palace in Buenos Aires to a missionary order with no money. He lives in an apartment, cooks his own food, rides the bus. He rejects pomposity. He does not feel superior. He is a fellow soul. He had booked a flight back to Argentina when the conclave ended.”

While millions have embraced this style as a breath of fresh air, others question Francis’s sincerity in light of his hard-charging management approach.

Yet these qualities are not necessarily in opposition to one another. Author Jim Collins found while researching and writing his classic business book, Good to Great, that these are the very qualities needed for companies to take the next step in their progression. He labeled them as attributes of a “Level 5 leader” and defined the term as one who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

Mr. Collins expanded on these qualities: “We found leaders of this type at the helm of every good-to-great company during the transition era…they were self-effacing individuals who displayed the fierce resolve to do whatever needed to be done to make the company great.

“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves…”

“Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.”

The author showed that when these qualities exist, successful results soon follow.

(3) “Mingling Among the Troops”

The third quality being seen in the new leadership is a focus on being in touch with what is happening on the ground with those in lower level positions. This technique makes people feel they are being understood, and gives leaders a better perspective of the issues facing the organization.

In Donald T. Phillips’ book Lincoln on Leadership, the author explains how “getting out of the office and circulating among the troops” is a key quality of any executive leader: “During his four years as president Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time among the troops. They were number one to him; they were the people who were going to get the job done. He virtually lived at the War Department’s telegraph office so he could gain access to key information for quick, timely decisions…

“In a letter to General Hunter, written shortly before relieving Fremont, Lincoln summarized his view of the situation. ‘He [General Fremont] is losing the confidence of men near him, whose support any man in his position must have to be successful,’ said Lincoln. ‘His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with.’”

“…with this letter Lincoln revealed the cornerstone of his own personal leadership philosophy, an approach that would become part of a revolution in modern leadership thinking 100 years later when it was dubbed MBWA (Managing by Wandering Around) by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their 1982 book In Search of Excellence. It has been referred to by other names and phrases, such as: ‘roving leadership,’ ‘being in touch,’ or ‘getting out of the ivory tower.’ Whatever the label, it’s simply the process of stepping out and interacting with people, of establishing human contact.”

A Telegraph article showed how this principle is being used in the Vatican’s top office: “Since his election last year, Pope Francis has personally met 12,000 people after his morning masses, read 50 letters a day from the public and has racked up 150 hours greeting people from the pope mobile in St Peter’s Square…

“Instead of taking off Tuesdays, as popes traditionally do, Francis uses the day to clear his backlog of meetings, wrote La Stampa…This weekend he will visit the Italian region of Molise following his recent trip to Calabria, where he got out of his car to bless a sick man who was wheeled up to his motorcade on a stretcher.”

Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Bridging the gap: Pope Francis meets Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a peace invocation prayer at the Vatican (June 8, 2014).

When Time magazine named the pope the 2013 “Person of the Year,” the article covered this aspect of Francis’s personality: “His vision is of a pastoral—not a doctrinaire—church, and that will shift the Holy See’s energies away from demanding long-distance homage and toward ministry to and embrace of the poor, the spiritually broken and the lonely. He expanded on this idea in a 288-section apostolic exhortation called ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ or ‘The Joy of the Gospel.’ ‘I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,’ he wrote.”

With a restructured head office, a new leader with a modest but fearless approach, and an understanding of what the people want, the Catholic Church is poised to experience unprecedented growth.

Wider Net

One other aspect of Pope Francis’s personality is his inclusiveness. Since taking office, he has consistently reached out to Protestants, Muslims, Jews and homosexuals. Regarding atheists, he even stated that one does not need to believe in God to be saved. For Rome to maintain its relevancy in today’s world, Pope Francis seems to recognize that a broad “come as you are” call is needed. This will especially yield results within the melting pot that is Europe and the Arab world.

Francis is casting his net wider than any previous pope, and it is resulting in a surge of popularity that has given him a platform to comment on world affairs. He has issued authoritative statements about the widening gap between rich and poor, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and American immigration reform.

The vast changes occurring inside the Vatican walls are setting the stage for a burst of growth for this organization. In fact, the Bible foretells that it will rise to even greater levels of influence in the near future. Prophecy reveals that increasing numbers will soon find themselves being brought into the Catholic Church’s expanding orbit. 

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