Originally posted on Forbes.com.
I’m writing this just after the conclave of cardinals announced the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who last month became the first modern-day pontiff to abdicate the throne. They charted some new ground, choosing 76-year-old Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first non-European to fill the role in more than 1,200 years and the first ever from the Jesuit order. But in other ways, it was a vote to preserve the status quo, as Bergoglio, who has chosen to be called Francis, is a theological conservative.
In some ways, it’s amazing that a successor emerged so quickly. The Catholic Church has been weathering some especially tough times, and a major reboot seems to be in order. The weeks after Pope Benedict stepped down were, a New York Times journalist wrote, “a period fraught with tense discussions about what kind of pope was needed for a church threatened by secularism, the scandal of clerical sex abuse and a Vatican bureaucracy stippled with corruption.”
There’s no doubt that a new kind of pope is needed, one who is more progressive, whose pronouncements are more in line with the times, who will confront the Church’s scandals head-on and make reparations where needed, and who will stay in sync with cultural change. Those are attributes of character, wisdom, experience and political savvy.
But in addition to that, Pope Francis will need some rock-solid branding skills. He’ll have to have a strong personal brand, a vision for the church’s brand in the 2010s and beyond, and an understanding of how outside forces might conspire to brand him.
My fellow Forbes contributor George Bradt, a leadership-development expert and the co-author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, recently offered some interesting insights in his column about what the new pope can learn from past leaders: “Now the church is at a turning point and the new Pope must do his part to complete its cultural change,” he explained in his introduction. The last time this was so was in 1958, when Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli became Pope John XXIII. One of his first acts was, says Bradt, “to call the Second Vatican Council ‘to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.’”
That’s a good start but a little vague. The new pope’s personal brand needs to assert that he’s someone suited to fostering changes in environment, values, attitudes, relationships and behaviors. “Given the new environment,” Bradt wrote, “the re-commitment to core values and the new attitude, strengthening relationships by strengthening communication, encouraging more in-depth debate and tackling conflict is critical to making Vatican II’s intended changes real and sustainable.”
Although Bradt concluded by stating that achieving meaningful culture change is a marathon not a sprint, Romy Ribitzky at Upstart Business Journal argued an opposite point, that Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation “jolt[ed] the Church into Catholic 2.0” and “forced the Church to confront his departure in an entrepreneurial fashion.”
His stepping down, she continued, “forced the ancient institution to do what every startup has been doing for generations: adapt or fade.” It also reinforced his own personal brand with some “‘steel’ in his spine, humility, humanity and making the unconventional decision,’” as Ribitzky quoted career consultant Michael D. Brown. “‘You can’t give 100 percent of something you are not passionate about—it’s best to move on a connect back to your passion.’”
Pope Francis would be wise to take that to heart—as would leaders of any organization, whether it be religious, cultural, corporate or entrepreneurial. This is a time for the new pope to prove that he is passionate: about the office, about his position, about committing to real change and about getting with the times. Pope Benedict XVI set a low bar there: His greatest innovation was starting a Twitter account (better than nothing, but still).
Imagine if Pope Francis were to take a bolder approach to branding, using all the tools available today, and commit to a public persona that has transparency, honesty, integrity, respect for relationships, and passion for restoring a troubled institution to a position of honor and respect.