Pope Francis, Change Agent

There's a lot that we all can learn about leadership from him.
October 13, 2015
Pope Francis preparing to address a joint meeting of Congress. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Russ Liden
By Russ Linden  |  Contributor
A management educator and author

As a student of leadership and change, I'm intrigued by Pope Francis. He is both "old school" and revolutionary. While maintaining fundamental church teaching (he opposes gay marriage, for example), he also reaches out to gay priests, saying of them, "Who am I to judge?" His recently published encyclical on climate change has been called "radical." Francis says that we shouldn't be so "obsessed" with culture-war issues like abortion: "We have to find a new balance." And he has saved some of his strongest words for a critique of unfettered capitalism: "Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service."

The pope certainly has his critics among the Catholic clergy. But his popularity around the world is enormous. Many Catholics who take exception with his positions nevertheless say that they love him and find his words and deeds inspiring. How does he do it?

At least part of the answer, I believe, is that Pope Francis uses some very sophisticated change principles that all leaders should consider:

• Honor the past (and present) as you push for change.

• Speak to shared values and shared background.

• "Shrink the change." That is, make it less daunting; take it in small steps.

• Think politically without appearing political.

• "If you can't solve a problem as it is, enlarge it" (a quote from Dwight Eisenhower).

• Talk about the change and its impact in human terms.

Excerpts from Francis' speech to the U.S. Congress last month illustrate many of these principles:

He began by saying, "I am most grateful for addressing this joint session of Congress, in the land of the free and the home of the brave." It drew a huge ovation, in part because it so clearly honored both our past and present. It also showed his ability to think politically without appearing so. His gentle demeanor was so sincere, so transparent, that even hard-nosed and often cynical members of Congress seemed touched and delighted by the compliment.

He went on to say that "I, too, am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much, and toward which we share a common responsibility." (Speak to shared values and shared background.) Francis is from Argentina and spent most of his life there before becoming pope. He had never visited the United States. But he found a simple, authentic way to connect with the members of Congress. And in this one simple sentence he did much more: He gently challenged the members to see their role as much broader than focusing on their states or districts.

Then the pope got personal when he moved to one of his strongest passions, the need to embrace immigrants and refugees: "We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, and I know that so many of you are also children of immigrants." (Speak to shared values and shared background.)

In an especially moving and politically savvy part of his talk, Pope Francis went on to discuss four eminent Americans and certain values that they embraced: Abraham Lincoln as a guardian of liberty who showed a love of the common good; Martin Luther King Jr., who gave all Americans the possibility to dream of equal rights; Dorothy Day, a tireless crusader for social justice; and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who promoted peace between peoples and religions.

Francis noted that these individuals "shaped fundamental values that endure forever in the spirit of the American people. These values support a people through any crisis or conflict." (Speak to shared values and shared background; talk about the change and its impact in human terms.) In a few sentences, Francis took core American values -- liberty, equality, justice, freedom of religion -- and put a personal face on them. He also made a subtle suggestion: that the nation has faced and addressed huge challenges in the past, so we must have the courage to face and deal with today's challenges. This is an example of "shrinking the change," framing it in a way that it doesn't appear overwhelming.

Finally, in his efforts to build the church Francis effectively uses the idea expressed by Eisenhower: "If you can't solve a problem as it is, enlarge it." Ike realized that certain issues can only be understood and addressed when seen as part of something larger. As the president of a Catholic institution noted, Francis "is connecting people to things that are timeless, fundamental truths." He wants a church that is more positive, that accepts people as they are and addresses them in a loving and welcoming manner. This "big tent" approach is encouraging more people to join the church and creating enormous excitement and pride among millions of Catholics. Most priests and other Catholic officials who disagree with Francis on certain issues probably share the goal of a church that grows.

Time will tell how much impact the pope makes. He's already accomplished one enormous change: getting hundreds of millions of Catholics and others to take a new look at an ancient institution. This pope has something to teach us about leadership and change.