Disrupting the Vatican

The Pope as a Change Management Tool

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

They didn’t see it coming.

When you elect a Pope, there are no national media teams dedicated to the exploration of a candidates background. There are no polls or parties or social media accounts to review.

The lives of the candidates are generally low key and a lot of them are unknown to the general population. It’s a closed, secretive process which hasn’t changed for centuries.

The Pope is the most powerful leader of the largest religion in the world, with ultimate authority over the Church and its followers. He has great influence and is widely respected by leaders in many countries.

The Pope is listed by Forbes as one of the world’s most powerful people. When Pope Benedict XVI retired on February 28, 2013; it was a huge surprise: retirement was unheard of.

Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio was an unknown.

He wasn’t anyone’s first choice. He had been quietly considered during the election of Pope Benedict XVI, but there had been very little mention of him since. The Cardinals in the enclave were backing their own favorites, in an attempt to maintain their influential standing at the Vatican.

Three groups of supporters were lobbying hard for their man to win and were caught in a deadlock.

Eventually each group decided to vote strategically. Instead of voting for another groups’ candidate, they cast their vote for Bergoglio and he became Pope.

It was an understatement to say that his election was a surprise to almost everyone involved. A Jesuit had never been Pope before. As the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he strongly advocated for the poor and underprivileged members of his flock.

Most of the other Cardinals expected that one of the papal favorites had a better chance of being elected.

Reach out to the people.

As events unfolded, he seemed like a good compromise, at least on the surface. He was from Latin America, which is a strong growth target market for the Church.

His platform was simple: the Church had to stop living within itself in order to survive.

He chose the name Francis in honor of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis had a strong commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. It was the first time any Pope chose Francis as his name.

The other Cardinals expected things to continue as they had in the past. A Pope would surround himself with assistants. That would protect them from contact with others.

In the past, to meet with the Pope, you had to get past the assistants by following strict protocols in your application for an audience. Often it was a personal connection with an insider that made the difference.

Then he took control and shocked them all.

Pope Francis used several well known principles of change management to revamp an aging organization. Techniques to implement change were his first choice of tools.

Tell it like it is.

Communication was one of the most significant items he focused on during the first weeks in the Papal office. Although he wasn’t computer savvy, he embraced Twitter.

In his first messages, he tweeted about the need for change in the world and our need as human beings to make changes in ourselves. Social media is one of the most effective ways to influence people and Pope Francis saw how powerful it was.

Listen and Learn.

Accessibility is another great technique that has been taught to managers facing change implementation.

This Pope was different. He would personally pay his bill at the hotel where he was staying, or accept a drink of tea from a stranger on the street which alarmed his bodyguards.

He cracked jokes and spent extra time with the people he met on his visits, completely changing long held views of the leader of the Church.

He didn’t allow a protective circle around him because he wanted people to have access. He didn’t tell his secretaries about every appointment. It let him bypass the bureaucracy of the past. Personal handwritten thank you notes and invitations connected him to the public and allowed them to connect with him.

Start at the Top.

Francis took over a corrupt Vatican that was filled with cronyism and favoritism and there was resistance to anything that would change the status quo.

He had one strong advantage in his favor: The Pope is the ultimate authority in the Church so ultimately the administration had to follow his lead.


A red-nosed Pope and Italian newlyweds who volunteer at a children’s charity, 2013. © Realyeasystar/Fotografia Felici/Alamy. (photo credit)

He appointed eight Cardinals to a task force to reform the Curia and he streamlined the org. chart, bypassing the bureaucracy of centuries past and flattening its hierarchy.

He changed his title to Bishop of Rome from Supreme Pontiff and delegated some of the papacy’s traditional duties.



He publicly scolded leaders in the church for remaining inflexible in the face of difficult issues such as gay marriage, abortion and birth control.

Francis advocates love and respect for every person. He is still determined to reopen conversations about these complicated social issues.

He criticizes the economic culture that leaves us blind to the misery of the poor, much to the concern of some well to do conservatives. He has called for action on climate change and the fiscal system that disadvantages the poor, arguing that the world community has a religious obligation to care for the poor and for the earth itself.

Francis is not afraid to take on the establishment, though his office represents the establishment in many ways.

Own it.

He embraces the poor and the marginalized and has established a Vatican tribunal on priestly sexual abuse, finally taking action on promises that the Church will call bishops to account.

He’s reforming the finances of the Vatican.

By setting up an economy ministry he has created ownership of the changes he intends to make as he plans to overhaul the long-corrupt Vatican Bank.

He likes to break rules.

Francis carries his own brief case and allows others to take the elevator with him. Right after his election he included women in a service that was open only to men in the past. Later, he changed the rules worldwide to reflect that inclusion. Francis sees the Church as the voice and face of mercy.

Be Decisive and Take Risks.

Francis makes unconventional decisions, causing shifts in the papacy, taking risks that showed people a new perspective of the Church. He has reached out to agnostics and atheists with his willingness to discuss previously closed topics.

The Jesuits have a historical practice of choosing a course of action, rather than inaction. It involves listening and thinking, a meditation where you seek the advice of God and then make a decision.

It’s a style that Francis has embraced during his life and especially in his time at the Vatican. This has allowed him to manage the changes needed to move this large and entrenched institution into the current century.

Live the Change

Right away it was clear that Pope Francis was going to be a refreshing presence.

He refused to live in the sumptuous apartments in the papal palace, choosing instead to live in a small two room apartment. This was one of the first and most telling decisions he made. It clearly represented his intention to remain with the people, at street level, instead of rising above them in the luxury of the palace. It allows him to preserve his independence from the Vatican administration.

Instead of the chauffeured Mercedes limo, he rides in a Ford Focus and he takes care of his own appointments.

He has managed to remain true to himself and has avoided the pageantry of the Vatican and the expectations of the members of the Church.

It’s like another great religious leader once said: “Be the change you want to see in this world”. Francis is certainly doing just that.


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