Some years ago I was asked by the chief executive of a large company which dealt directly with the public to advise him on organic changes which might turn a successful business into a very successful business. I recommended that, although their customer relations were generally good, he should elevate the value of customer satisfaction into a major principle. I had in mind a company like the John Lewis Partnership, where this is a prime reason for commercial success.
He accepted my recommendation immediately. Who could resist the argument that a company dependent on its many customers should take their satisfaction as paramount? But then we ran into trouble. His second-in-command was a money man. And he was quick to point out that elevating customer relations was expensive. Moderating various aspects of procedures, being pro-active in putting mistakes right, and paying compensation with alacrity and without question could be expected to reduce profit margins and, certainly, the cost of the complementary publicity would be considerable.
The chief executive would not however change his mind. Improved customer service had to be the answer. But his heart was no longer in it. And, surprise, surprise, nothing – beyond a few “motherhood” statements – happened.
What would the accepted principles of effective leadership have suggested here? It was essential that the chief executive should have truly believed in the idea for its own sake. To regard it as little more than a strategic device was insufficient. His determination to make his dream a reality would have led him to demonstrate by his example in word and deed that customer satisfaction was of key importance. Through our evolved tendency to accept the influence of the leader, it would not have been long before his staff, from the executive committee to the tea lady, would have started to suggest ideas, or devise in their own work, ways of putting this vision into action. And the company would have been transformed.
I thought of this relatively trivial experience as I watched Pope Francis go about his business. The expectation, or at least the strong hope, was that he would set about some very essential re-organisation. The Curia, whose reform was mandated by Vatican II, needed radical attention, the hothouse insulation of the clerical class wanted a whirlwind rather than simply an open window. The ceremonial superbity of the establishment was remote from the simplicity of Jesus and his Apostles. The failure of the whole Church to communicate as a real family was predominant. Above all, the true holiness of the Church had been obscured by the suffocating accretion that comes with centuries of power.
So what has Pope Francis done so far? There has been little executive decision, but we have seen him presenting in his own person the soul of the Church as he believes it to be. You can list your own examples, I just note down a small selection of those that struck me. His choice to live simply, away from the papal apartments, his insistence on informal communication, Christian love extending to include terrorists, the Church’s tendency to look inwards and not outwards towards evangelisation, bishops to be holy leaders rather than administrators, his attack on hypocrisy, his warning not to take criticism from the Congregation of the Faith too seriously, the washing of feet as a symbol of service extended to women – and Muslim women at that. And certainly not least, the assurance that even atheists are redeemed by Christ and can truly do good. This statement of radical, yet orthodox, theology will sound down the generations, but could once have put him into the hands of the Inquisition.
Of course anyone can ask: “Where’s the beef?” We shall wait and see. But we do know that bringing about a radical culture change in any organisation is an uphill task – and for two main reasons. The first is that there are many fearful people who have found in the old culture precise certainties that enabled them to feel safe. Suddenly they are being asked to take personal responsibility for working out what love means in their own life, both in terms of their identification with Christ, and their display of Christ to others. No longer is the focus on good or bad actions; the focus is on love and the absence of love. Scary!
Then the Church, at all its structural levels, is populated by members who have got to where they are in the pecking order by excelling in the old culture. This is not only a question of habit, but often also a question of temperament. Many of them will be reluctant to kick down the ladders up which they have climbed, and some will find it impossible.
These factors inevitably mean that change takes time – time measured in decades, rather than years. And the ride will be bumpy; it may often appear that Francis has brought stress to the Church rather than peace. And the temptation to return to the comforts of the past will be great.
But change is not the fruit of drawing up a masterplan and imposing it on the organisation. Change is possible only through a transformation in the way an organisation thinks and feels. Then change will swell up from the grassroots. And Francis is vividly showing us what it is to be a Christian. As King Agrippa once said to Paul: “Thou dost almost persuade me to become a Christian.” Agrippa did not, as far as we know, convert, but will we?