3 lessons gathered from white smoke

by | Mar 18, 2013 | Blog | 1 comment

Even tradition-laden organizations can adopt change quickly.

Just look at the Roman Catholic Church and its voting for a new pope this month.

Francis, a Jesuit from Latin America. All firsts.

They’re not the only changes with potential benefits.

Three other actions associated with the pope’s selection can serve as excellent examples of leading change.

These lessons are hardly traditional teachings of the Catholic Church. Instead, they are non-denominational learnings that others can adapt and apply to advance their change initiatives.

Before I share the lessons, a confession. I am not Catholic so I’m hardly qualified to comment on the teachings of the Catholic Church or for that matter, any other church or religion.

The observations struck me while I was stuck in the car listening to all-news radio.

After the newscasters announced that white smoke had started to billow from the Sistine Chapel chimney, which indicated that two-thirds of the Cardinals had successfully chosen a new pope, I decided to continue listening to hear who they had elected.

After more than an hour later when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was introduced as Pope Francis, I had absorbed more about the process than I had imagined possible.

My three lessons are:  

1. The return on investment of advance meetings may be larger than you think. In this case, the 115 cardinals met for more than a week of discussions before they started their formal work of selecting the new pope. According to the church experts interviewed on CBS radio, the cardinals had many opportunities to talk informally, dine together and start to get to know one another before undertaking their assigned job of electing a pope. Their time together probably contributed to their relatively fast decision.

Granted, the Catholic Church may have more resources and reasons to bring people together than other organizations. However, the rest of us should think about actions we can take to introduce people to each other and have informal encounters before they’re expected to come together to do hard work.

2. Involving thousands of people not only is possible, but is also powerful. Pope Francis demonstrated that you can immediately get people involved in a meaningful way. You have more options that just talking to people.

Specifically, as his first action, the new Pope asked the crowd of 150,000 to bless him. Only after they did so, did he do the traditional blessing. His first action sent strong signals through the crowd, commentators and observers like me that he is a humble man who is interested in others.

Pope Francis’ act especially thrilled me as it was a noteworthy example of what I’ve termed “micro-involving”—a way for leaders to build rapport and connections with stakeholders through small, meaningful steps that don’t require huge time investments. For more about this, see Start micro-involving to build stronger connections.

3. We always should be looking for things to celebrate because they help us reinforce joyful, shared experiences that we want to remember. The roar of the crowd at throughout the afternoon was a great reminder of the value of celebrations. In a short time period, the crowd gathered to celebrate at least five mini-events: 1) the white smoke signals signifying the election results; 2) the identification of the pope; 3) the introduction of the pope; 4) the pope’s first acts; and 5) the hope that a new pope brings.

Even though I was listening on the radio to this event thousands of miles away, the crowd’s enthusiasm was intense. Later on, when I got to watch the taped TV coverage, the light show of the cell phones capturing photos and videos highlighted the joyful scene.

While this type of event happens infrequently, it’s still possible to find opportunities to bask in the moment and enjoy the experience. These shared occasions can serve as important symbols for people, reinforcing their shared purpose, camaraderie and joint actions. Unfortunately, many of us either forget or neglect to stop, share and reflect. Instead, we’re moving on to the next thing, missing a great opportunity for a small yet significant celebration.

Who knows if these behaviors will turn into habits that will transform the church?

Regardless, these three practices are healthy habits for leading change in other organizations.

How about trying at least one of them to make your organization healthier?

1 Comment

  1. Chris Amstut


    I like the way you boiled this major event down into three key learnings. It made me look differently at it and realize that there was really alot more going on than meets the eye. Nice post!


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