This week is the start of Pope Francis’s first and much anticipated US tour. As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, he is the moral and spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people all over the world – from the Philippines, where 86% of the population identify as Roman Catholic, to Brazil, which has over 125 million Catholics.


The overall picture for the Catholic church, though, is one of decline. Take the US as an example. Twenty-two percent of Americans are Catholic, making it the largest religious body in the country. But fewer of them than ever before say they have a “strong Catholic identity”. And of those American adults who were raised Catholic, four in ten no longer identify with the religion.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio took over after being elected Pope in 2013 he found an organization struggling to adapt to the changes going on around it. His words and deeds since becoming Pope have earned him a reputation as a radical reformer, and provide four important lessons for leaders from all walks of life.

 1. Don’t be afraid to break with the past – but accept that change takes time

Disrupt or be disrupted. That’s the message all leaders are being told, as yesterday’s industry giants find themselves displaced by newcomers. To learn how it’s done, they should turn to Pope Francis for guidance. He’s been referred to as the world’s disruptor-in-chief, and not without good reason.

Within Pope Francis’s first year at the Vatican, he was calling for the church to “find a new balance”. It had, he wrote in an apostolic exhortation, become too obsessed with dogma and moral teachings – particularly on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. It was time for change and to focus on the true meaning of what it meant to be Catholic: love and compassion for others.

But while transformations – in both the church and society more broadly – seem to be happening at breakneck speed, it is the responsibility of leaders to take a step back and plan for the longer term: “Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change,” he said in a 2013 interview.

2. Build alliances

In that same 2013 interview, when asked what historical figures he looked up to, Pope Francis named Peter Faber, one of the first Jesuit priests. Among the many character traits he admired was Faber’s “dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents.”

In carrying out his reform agenda, Pope Francis has lived out this open-minded and inclusive approach. Rather than only appointing cardinals who share his outlook, he has chosen people from across the entire philosophical and political spectrum, even hard-liners such as Gerhard Ludwig Müller. He has also built alliances with the most unlikely of people, inviting the likes of Naomi Klein – in her words a “secular, Jewish feminist” – to speak at Vatican press conferences.

Bringing about change takes a bold, decisive leader. But no one person – not even the Pope – can do that on their own. They must learn to forge alliances.

3. Seek advice from experts

Pope Francis has been interested in climate change for a long time, particularly how it affects the poorest and most vulnerable. Almost a decade ago, when he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, he helped draft a document that denounced the damage we are doing to our planet: “Nature has been, and continues to be, assaulted. The land has been plundered.”

But when it came to researching and writing Laudato Si, his encyclical on climate change, he did not let this interest and passion blind him to the fact he is not a climate scientist. Months before the 192-page letter was published, he started consulting leading experts on the issue, including Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. This thorough research meant that while people could disagree with his opinion, it was harder to disagree with the facts he used to corroborate his argument.

Like Pope Francis, great leaders surround themselves with knowledgeable peers, and aren’t afraid to call on their expertise and advice.

4. Be mission-driven

The most successful companies and their leaders care about more than the bottom line: they are driven by a higher purpose. According to research from Gallup, mission-driven organizations find it easier to retain and keep staff engaged, and as a result, their teams are more productive. A 2015 study from Deloitte confirmed that trend, finding that 50% of millennials would take a pay cut for a job that matched their values and 90% want to use their skills for good.

This was a point Pope Francis was keen to make in his message to participants at the Forum’s Annual Meeting in 2014: “Business is, in fact, a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life.” He has on many occasions spoken about the dangers of “unfettered capitalism” and emphasized something all great leaders should know: there’s more to business than just making money.

Pope message

Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum.

Image: The U.S. flag flies as painters work on a mural of Pope Francis on the side of a building in midtown Manhattan in New York August 28, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid