Francis, the CEO without a Plan.

What does the pope really want?

Pope Francis would probably be the first one to be cautious about drawing any parallel between a CEO’s job and his own, considering that he even views his present title to be in desperate need of shedding some weight.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose Francis as his papal moniker in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, who is known for having renounced to his patrimony in order to become an itinerant preacher. He has shown a humble approach to the papacy, for instance choosing to reside in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the Apostolic Palace. On the night of his election, he took the bus back to his hotel with the cardinals, rather than being driven in the papal car. Yes, the bus!

He favors simpler vestments void of ornamentation, choosing silver instead of gold for his piscatory ring, and keeping the same pectoral cross he had when he was cardinal. “Depicting the pope as a sort of Superman, a star, is offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly, and has friends like everyone else”, he said in an interview with Corriere della Sera.

Francis considers himself first and foremost a pastor. He’s known for sporadically cold-calling random individuals around the world — comforting families for losing a loved one, asking people in distress to join him in prayer, and proactively offering journalists additional insight into a story they’ve written about him. In a recent event arranged via satellite by ABC News, he spontaneously asked a teenage girl from Chicago to “be courageous” and sing for him.

None of these behaviors would normally be attributed to a CEO, would they?

However, Francis is a different kind of CEO.
The kind who understands that modesty is a conduit for constant learning and self-improvement. The kind who makes himself available to everyone, even those whom he might disagree with. The kind who believes that transparency encourages broader participation and affiliation.
The kind who is less concerned about his social media following or approval ratings, and instead more vigilant of how members in his organization contribute to leading it in a new direction. The kind who understands that inspiring trust in others is largely dependent on strength of character, willingness to listen and being present in the moment, not so much on job title, charisma and controlling the narrative.
The kind whose actions are not driven by quarterly earnings and market share but rather by the daily purpose of fostering dialogue and peace.

What makes him a particularly unique CEO is that he doesn’t have a plan, at least not in a literal sense that includes timelines, supply chains, metrics and incentives. He actually demonstrates a mind-boggling detachment from the overall outcome of things, a concept that would seem inconceivable to most people of power. “Live and let live”, is one of his ten tips for a happy life. “Who am I to judge?”, is one of his most celebrated remarks. “Please pray for me”, is one of his frequent requests.

Skeptics have pointed out that the pope’s media-friendly rhetoric is a cynical way to disguise the Vatican’s unrelenting grip on views over homosexuality, contraceptives, divorce, ordination of women and priest celibacy. But criticisms are often narrow-minded as they are missing the bigger idea unfolding right in front of us.

Although Francis may not be re-writing the rules of Catholicism per se (not yet, at least), he is diligently restoring to religion its most important mission, which is to put the human being in the center, instead of sin. Given how the reward-and-punishment moral ideology of the Church has permeated the world of politics and business over centuries, this idea is truly transcendental.

Francis understands that this shift intimately affects some of the world’s core power structures, and he’s shown tremendous courage and pragmatism in setting the wheels in motion for a better model.

Not surprisingly, some of the long-standing power structures are within the Vatican itself. In conservative Catholic circles, it has been said that the Church under Francis is like “a ship without a rudder”. For the most part, this has been a reaction to him setting a new direction for the institution and implementing some major housekeeping initiatives. What’s most impressive is that he doesn’t seem to have blinked once in the process. It’s as if he knew deep inside that he must unequivocally soften the grip on ideology, reform the Vatican bank, tackle pedophilia, stop lavish spending, welcome science, and foster interfaith dialogue, if he is to have a shot at making his broader message get thru to the global audience.

His swiftness in reforming things at home has certainly contributed to his meteoric rise in the international scene, allowing him to rub shoulders with the top global leaders on Forbes’ most powerful people list. Without missing a beat, his call to action to them and their constituencies is very straightforward, summed up quite nicely in this passage from the 184-page Encyclical published in April of 2015:

“Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used … Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

What’s particularly striking about his appeal is that it highlights how the democratization of technology and the creation of innovative business ideas are insufficient when we don’t evolve our way of thinking, too. For example, he acknowledges the value of new tools and ventures that modernize our lives and foster economic development, while at the same time expressing concern for how these things might lead to an even higher concentration of power, a deeper disconnect from nature and the perpetuation of harmful consumption habits. In broad terms, he’s offering an important distinction between mindsets that we ought to pay attention to: one that centers on conquering the world and another which centers on serving it.

The pope may be a CEO without a plan, but he has been extremely thorough in outlining the problems that are at the epicenter of humanity’s future. As Waze co-founder Uri Levine would say, “fall in love with the problem not the solution, and the rest will follow”. For Francis, this is not just a “one billion people problem”, but truly a “seven billion people problem”.

He has already hinted to the media that he may not last long as pontiff, but this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have skin in the game. And that’s precisely the point: we all do. The world is more interconnected than ever, and integral problems demand integral solutions; thus everyone must chip in.

Conventional wisdom has taught us for decades that a Chief Executive Officer’s role is to get things done, deliver results and focus on shareholder value. Any respectable board meeting revolves around obtaining satisfactory answers and promises from the one who’s in charge. This approach may still be useful within traditional hierarchical systems. Francis, on the other hand, is raising our collective awareness towards the delicate global network that we’re all part of, and the urgent need to make our contribution to move humanity forward, mainly by recalibrating our mindset. He has therefore created a different mandate for himself, and devotes most of his energy to reaching out to others, listening to diverse perspectives, and then asking more questions.

Unlike your typical CEO, he’s never afraid of saying “I don’t know”.

twitter @christianfilli