Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reform by Quiet Competence

When changes are urgently needed, putting a new leader in place is one of the first things we think of. But all too often, especially in the corporate world, we think in stereotypes. A reformer is supposed to be brash, loud, possibly angry, someone who doesn’t hesitate to draw attention to himself — a bull in a china shop. U.S. corporations in trouble almost always have their most important executives replaced with new leaders of this style.

I am sure there were thoughts along these lines in the Roman Catholic Church too. But the new pope was a surprising choice, a quietly competent advocate for the poor, for an institution that has spent the last century and more trying to conquer the world. On the surface at least, it was not a bad choice if you are hoping for change, and that was clearly a priority for most of the cardinals who had a say in the decision. Pope Francis, whose style of reform seems to tend more to quietly fixing things than to getting into arguments, may find a way to put a dent in the endemic corruption of Vatican City that ultimately overwhelmed and subsumed his predecessor.

If reform by shouting has a record of failure in the Vatican, it has not done so well in business either. How many great corporations have blustered their way right into bankruptcy court — or have pre-announced bold and risky programs that led them, after several tumultuous years, right back where they started? With the Roman Catholic Church’s appointment of Pope Francis, observers are finding reason to hope that it may, for now, avoid that kind of downward spiral.