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Columnists

Leading us on

Paul Vallely

Your most important job, I was once told when I took over as the chair of an organisation, is to find the person who will be chair when you go. Sir Alex Ferguson thought he had found the right person to take over from him at Manchester United, and boobed in a massive way. Pope Benedict, by contrast, left it in the hands of a greater power - whether collegial or divine, or perhaps both - and the outcome has clearly been a good deal better all round.

My point here is not to compare Pope Francis with the luckless David Moyes whose rapid descent from Chosen One to Frozen Out One was exceeded in acceleration only by the angelic Lucifer. It is more about working out how you negotiate a successful transition. The business world has some understanding of this. It loves case studies of great 'turnaround CEOs' who breathe new life into dying organisations - Lou Gerstner at IBM, Sergio Marchionne at Fiat and Steve Jobs at Apple.

A waggish leader in The Economist recently brought this perspective to bear on Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who has rebranded RC Global in barely a year: When Pope Francis was appointed, the paper said: 'The world's oldest multinational was in crisis. Pentecostal competitors were stealing market share in the emerging world, including in Latin America, where Francis ran the Argentine office. In its traditional markets, scandals were scaring off customers and demoralising the salesforce. Recruitment was difficult, despite the offer of lifetime employment in a tough economy. The firm's finances were also a mess. The board was divided and weak. Francis's predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first pope to resign for 600 years, amid dark rumours that the founder and chairman, a rarely-seen elderly bearded figure whose portrait adorns the Sistine boardroom, had intervened.'

There is more to this than a good gag. In business jargon Francis offers a classic lesson in core competence. He has refocused his organisation on being 'a poor church for the poor'. He leads by personal example. He has repositioned the brand, telling the church to lift the focus from its previous obsessions on abortion and gay marriage. He has diverted resources from head office to branches in Latin American, Africa and Asia, emerging markets where the potential for growth seems greatest. He is also engaging in classic business restructuring with his reform of the Vatican bureaucracy.

Consult other business gurus and you see other resonances. 'If you want to be a great leader, you must first become a great follower,' says the US leadership sage Michael Hyatt who starts at the opposite pole, suggesting industry needs to learn from religion. Joshua learned from Moses over 40 years in the wilderness, Elisha served Elijah for ten years before taking up his master's mantle and Peter followed Jesus for three years - and made a lot of mistakes - before, in the words of Acts, 'turning the world upside down'. Great followers, Hyatt says, are clear that they are servants of something greater than themselves. Only when they have understood how to obey orders can they give orders most effectively.

And they are humble. 'You should be shouting Jesus not Francesco,' as the Pope chides the crowd. He also realises, as business writers insist, that a successful organisation demonstrates a sense of common purpose, shared values, and aligned vision. Great business leaders understand that profits don't drive purpose, but purpose certainly drives profits. That is also true of prophets.

Part of the skill of a top class leader lies also in knowing how to depart the scene to make creative space for your successor. Sir Alex Ferguson, a lifelong control- freak, clearly failed in this department. First he dominated in the process of choosing a new manager to take over at Man Utd, and picked David Moyes, whom he saw as a clone of his younger self from 30 years back. But then Fergie remained, not just as a director of the club but as a glowering presence in the stands. Moyes may not have had the right qualities for the task but his predecessor had made himself an almost impossible act to follow. The results on the pitch have proved Manchester United's worst season for decades with a catalogue of unenviable 'firsts' being recorded in match after match.

By contrast once Pope Benedict had taken the revolutionary decision to become the first pope to resign voluntarily since 1294 (Gregory XII in 1415 was pushed) the decision on a replacement was far from down to a single individual. Instead of looking for a like-for-like replacement those charged with finding a new Pope went for someone with an entirely contrasting skillset. The result has been revitalisation and a renewed sense of purpose.

But business has another interesting nuance to add. Charismatic figures can be a gift or a calamity for the organisations that they lead, or indeed a bit of both. David Waldman, a professor of management from Arizona, talks of what he calls 'generative' and 'personalised' charismatics. The former uses his or her charisma to empower others to work well within the organisation; the latter uses force of personality to bully other staff into their best performances. One leaves behind an organisation that can continue growing; the departure of the other plunges the whole place into leaderless chaos. When it's respect versus fear it's pretty obvious which comes out as the winner in the long term.