Pope Francis - Model of Leader in Complex Adaptive System

Jorge Bergoglio was tapped in March as the new leader of the of 1.2 billion Roman Catholic people. In these few months, he has generated considerable “buzz” for his leadership style, both from within the Catholic church and from the greater public. His first act as Pope was to take a unique name of Francis, that both broke from tradition and inspired a key role of the church in aiding the poor. Leadership in any organization is challenging, but in large complex organizations like the Catholic church leadership is even more challenging. The strict doctrines, formal hierarchies and rich cultural traditions seem to imply an organization that will not change. However, issues like declining membership, public attitudes toward religion, shortage of priests and conflicts in values creates a tension that the organization must change. How does a new leader deal with this apparent “rock and a hard place;” needing to change but needing to stay the same? The answer is exactly like Pope Francis has behaved. The lessons here are leadership lessons for anyone that assumes a leadership role in a complex organization. I think, particularly in the American political and education systems, which are complex adaptive systems, we need more leaders that think and act like Pope Francis.

When leaders step into the role of a large complex organization, there is a tendency to think that he or she was selected to that position because he or she is the smartest person in the room capable of making the difficult decisions to solve the complex current problems. There is a tendency of leaders to believe they are all powerful, that they can command any change. Pope Francis, as a result of both religious and personal beliefs understands that he is not all powerful nor all knowing.

More and more researchers are examining complex adaptive organizations and unique ways they change. A complex adaptive systems is composed of a diversity of people or processes that interact with each other and mutually affect each other. The result of these complex interactions is an overall organization behavior. But, the pattern of behavior in these systems is not constant, because when a system’s environment changes, so does the behavior of its people or process. In other words, the system is constantly adapting to the conditions
around it. Over time, the system evolves through continuous adaptation. An excellent description of research on leaders in complex business organization is, “Leading at the Edge: How Leaders influence Complex Systems” by, Birute Regine and Roger Lewin .

Here are a few of the leadership behaviors in complex organizations that Pope Francis exhibits.

Model Ethics, Caring and Concern

Complex organizations have the capacity to change themselves over time. In order for that organization to change in a positive direction, it is the leaders role to affirm the core beliefs of the organization and a commitment to strong ethical behavior. The leader should seek to inspire stronger, more positive efforts on behalf of the organization. The statements of the leader need to strongly affirm the leader’s commitment to ethical principles in moving forward. The leader needs to show that he is fully committed to the organization and every person in the organization is valued. Nearly every action by this Pope reinforces that he is deeply committed to the church he values the work of every person, regardless of position. There is no talk of “cleaning house” and removing unethical bishops or immoral priests. All of the conversation is positive. Those changes will come, but will not be driven in a top down authoritative manner.

Push to the Edge of Chaos

When change is necessary, the leader needs to convey a message that it is not business as usual. During a change of leadership, many people, who are comfortable in the organization, want to see stability. They want the new leader to act in the same manner as previous leader to maintain the comfortable status quo. Pope Francis has not done that. Actions such as living in simpler quarters, changing traditions in dress, avoiding condemning homosexuality has people watching and paying attention. He is not making changes in the organization, but sends a message that things are different. That create a bit of chaos, not totally disruptive, but heightens everyones focus within the organization. It adds an energy of excitement and anticipation. From that energy changes are more likely to evolve within the organization.

Evoke Emotions

Complex organization establish procedures and doctrines to follow and maintain consistency in the organizations. These become the boundaries of acceptable behaviors. But procedures do not inspire new actions. they tend to maintain the current status quo. A church that has to deal with so many social issues needs new energy and direction. Leaders do this by evoking emotion. In complex people organizations, it is emotions that drive change. Leaders that want to strengthen the organization, need to evoke positive emotions in people. It is not the new policy or procedure that inspires action, it is emotions. The things were care about trigger our emotions — family, children, people less fortunate, the environment. Pope Francis’ actions such as embracing the disabled man with severe facial disfiguration and his affection for children and the poor trigger emotions in us that make us want join him in the work of the church. It is not following a church doctrine, it is following a leader.

Make Small Changes That Have Powerful Effects

Complex organizations seem totally resistant to change, but it is actually the opposite. They are resistant to large scale change but are constantly changing and adapting throughout the organization. The leader has an effect by making small changes that ripple across the organization. Just as a stone thrown in lake creates a small ripple that cascades across the entire surface small changes can have big effects. One example from Pope Francis is the answer to a reporters question about homosexuality, a polarizing issue in the church. His answer was simple, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He didn’t avoid the issue with a “No Comment.” He didn’t say we need to change the policy. He simply acted in a way that we should not condemn and castigate homosexuals. This ripple could have significant impact throughout the church by modeling the behavior to treat everyone with respect, regardless of beliefs or behaviors.

It remains to be seen, over time, the lasting leadership impact that Pope Francis will have on the Roman Catholic church, but as a new leader, he clearly exhibits leadership behaviors that are valuable lessons for other leaders in other complex organizations.