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Benedict XVI, CEO

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Today I gave a speech to the Orange Catholic Foundation’s annual Conference on Business and Ethics. After some thoughts on choosing to work with good people, treating clients with good faith, and being open to Good Samaritan moments (see the movie, The Visitor), I reviewed the baker’s dozen of boardroom lessons that could be derived from Benedict XVI’s extraordinarily successful visit to the U.S.

1. Patience and calm in the face of a crisis allows for an intervention at the exact moment of opportunity.

Benedict has been pope for three years, and the U.S. Church in a deep crisis for far longer, but he did not rush a visit here, but waited until a moment when his presence could achieve a change in momentum. Sometimes leaders have to wait out the very worst crises or risk premature and ineffective attempts at crisis management.

2. Good planning makes for incredible successes.

I was in St. Patrick’s in New York on Friday at noon when the monsignor saying the noon Mass used the homily to review the incredible amount of rehearsal and preparation that went into the Saturday morning Mass at the Cathedral. And that was just one of many events, each one of which went off with an amazing precision. The pope’s journey was incredibly successful because of the massive amount of practice and attention to detail that preceded it.

3. Be gracious to everyone, from the president to the baby on the aisle as you exit the stadium in D.C.

The pope modeled a genuine appreciation for everyone who came across his path. Wall Street would have had far fewer scandals over the past decade had the bigs been as attentive to their lowest level employees and shareholders as they were to the big rollers.

4. Focus on the best attributes of those you are with.

The pope’s speech on the lawn of the White House with its praise of the American founding and the country’s role in the world was a display of the power of finding the good and praising it. This paragraph could not help but make an American beam with pride:

From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations.

Seeking out a high profile opportunity to celebrate the best in the U.S. gave a great start to the pope’s visit.

5. Avoid the party scene.

Benedict XVI skipped the White House dinner in his honor. It wasn’t a snub, but many CEOs could reflect on that simplicity.

6. He met first with his senior deputies –all of them, at the same time.

The first business meeting was with the bishops, and not a special circle of them. Though some have more seniority and larger dioceses, Benedict’s democratic approach to senior leadership is another model of how to avoid factionalism.

7. Benedict met with those charged with training up the next generation.

His remarks to the leaders of Catholic colleges and universities have been described to me as a rebuke and a prod that did not contain a single condemnation. He raised the visibility of the educators and underscored the seriousness of their mission. Forty years hence, their collective efforts will have shaped the American church far more profoundly than all the papal visits to America. Benedict put that responsibility squarely before them, as CEOs ought to be doing to their recruitment and training chiefs frequently.

8. The pope met with and was attentive to representatives of those whom his organization had harmed.

Benedict’s meeting with victims of the abuse scandals was a crucial moment for them and the American Catholic Church, and set an example of responsible leadership for every head of every organization that commits a great wrong.

9. Benedict spoke clearly and calmly to his friends as well as his foes, and appealed to the latter to raise themselves up.

When he addressed the U.N., Benedict was talking to representatives of some extraordinarily evil regimes, but rather than use the podium to condemn his opponents –however just such rhetoric might have been– he instead appealed to all to aim for the universal agreements on human rights. Such a serious man is very unlikely to be confused about the actual impact of such an appeal, but such a spiritual man knows that with God all things are possible. CEOs have competitors and some have enemies. The pope gave them an example of how to deal with them.

10. Throughout his entire trip, Benedict publicly attacked no one by name, rebuked no one, embarassed no one, but was clear about right and wrong throughout.

11. Benedict prayed publicly, and not just at ceremonial celebrations, but at Ground Zero at the most public place and one associated with the greatest sorrow. Christian CEOs have to think about that example, both about the willingess to publicly declare faith, and to do so at the hardest moments of life.

12. The pope met with the next generation of priests and religious, showing them that he has faith in them and knows they are already forming the future of the Roman Catholic Church. A leader that looks forty years out to encourage the future workforce on which everything will depend is far-sighted indeed.

13. And then he left. No excessive over-the-shoulder-looking, no micro-managing. Just an inspiring, goal-setting, healing and wildly successful, wonderfully planned and executed strategic intervention in one part of a vast, global organization.

This the work of an 81 year old man not known for his charisma.

There are a thousand business books out there, but Benedict runs the longest-running, largest organization of them all, and he left a case-study on leadership behind.


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