Pope Francis’ Critique of the Bureaucratic Personality: Are We Listening?

Yesterdy Pope Francis delivered a blistering critique of the Catholic Church’s administrative apparatus directly to the leaders of that body, the Roman Curia. Citing fifteen “ailments” that afflict the church bureaucracy, the Pope addressed problems of that group, but more generally raised questions that should be thoughtfully considered by all who work in large organizations, whether corporate or governmental.

The Pope began by remarking on the limits of a bureaucracy “that is not self-critical, does not stay up-to-date, (and) that does not seek to improve itself.” This condition is fed by leaders or managers who consider themselves indispensable, and “transform themselves into masters, (believing) themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.”

The Pope also derided the tendency of those in large bureaucracies to lose their “inner serenity, vivacity, and boldness” and become “working machines.” In doing so, he pointed out, leaders, managers, or others lose their capacity for empathy and emotional “sensibility.”

There is also excessive planning and functionalism, in which “the apostle plans everything in detail and believes that, by perfect planning things effectively progress….” In contrast, and very much in keeping with the contemporary critique of stale and tradition-bound organizations, the Pope recommends “freshness, imagination, and innovation.”

Next is the sickness of poor coordination, where the organization “loses its harmonious functionality and its temperance” and where “members do not collaborate and do not work with a spirit of communion…..”

The Pope also took aim at “excessive industriousness,” the failure to rest, to reflect, and to replenish, both spiritually and physically. The result of this lack of recovery time is stress and agitation, both of which are antithetical to individual health and to job performance.

After several ailments pointed more directly at the Curia, the Pope also noted the tendency for those in large organizations to become indifferent toward others, losing “the sincerity and warmth of personal relationships.” Among managers and leaders, this tendency may become even more acute, as they come “to treat others – especially those they consider inferior – with rigidity, hardness, and arrogance.”

Finally, there is the disease of accumulation, when “the apostle seeks to fill an existential emptiness of the heart by accumulating material goods” or when “the apostle transforms his service into power, and his power into goods to obtain worldly profit or more power.”

In my view, the Pope provided not only a critique of the church bureaucracy but provided enormous insight into what we might call the “bureaucratic personality.”  Certainly many organizations are adopting more progressive practices, emphasizing creativity and innovation at the organizational level and meaningful engagement at the personal level.

Still today, most of us live in the shadow of organization, acting out an organizational ideology that makes us more objective, impersonal, and aloof than we would, upon reflection, prefer. Despite changes at the institutional level, an increasing number of today’s managers and leaders seem to exhibit heavy-handed, top-down management styles.

How often, even recently, have we seen managers and leaders who consider themselves superior, even indispensable, who lose touch with “the real people,” and who display excessive ego? How often have we seen those same people become rigid and harsh in their relations with subordinates?

Similarly, we can easily think of managers and leaders who plan excessively, impose their own vision, and fail to adapt to changing conditions.  And we have we seen managers and leaders forsake the ideals of their organizations in pursuit of wealth and personal power, resulting in dramatic inequities in income and rewards.

Individually we have often failed to engage in self-reflection and self-critique, which might lead to positive change in the way we act.  We have let stress and “agitation” overcome us. We have failed to collaborate and to commit to the team. And, in pursuit of machine-like efficiency, we have neglected personal relationships and failed to engage with others in an empathetic and caring fashion.

In all of these areas, without even conscious thought, we forgive our managers and leaders and ourselves, saying that’s just the way things work – that’s how things have always been done. But, as the Pope points out, things don’t have to be that way – whether in the church bureaucracy or our own.

I would suggest that the first corrective is simply a recognition and an articulation of the human problems of large organizations, something the Pope provided for the Catholic Church, and something we might do for each of our own groups and organizations. A period of self-reflection, self-critique, and dialogue might appropriately follow.

We need to focus on opening new spaces for freedom, autonomy, empathy, humility, patience, commitment, caring and concern in our workplaces.  We need to address ways to get work done without damage to the human spirit. We need to talk about these things – not through gossip or finger-pointing – but through patient, tolerant, and reasoned conversations.

Just as it will not be easy for Pope Francis to reform the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, it will not be easy for us to reform our own organizations. But the fact that the Pope chose the holiday season, a time of reflection and new commitments, to make his statement, suggests that this might be an opportune time for all of us to think about how we might build more humane organizations and encourage more communal and supportive leadership.

Perhaps this is the season to address the human concerns of autonomy, collaboration, and engagement in large organizations – not in pursuit of greater productivity and economic gain – but in pursuit of greater significance in our lives and in the lives of those we lead.


The Vision Thing – and its Limits

Many years ago, President George H. W. Bush made a now-famous remark about “the vision thing.”  Since that time, the vision thing has become an essential part of the lexicon of leadership.  When people are asked what constitutes leadership, they will almost always say something about vision – that the leader is the one with the vision and the one with the power to move the organization toward that vision.

For most organizations today, the process of setting a vision is usually done through some sort of strategic planning process, sometimes a formal process involving many different stakeholders, but often an informal process in which the organization’s founders or those at the top simply create and send out their vision for the organization. In either case, the vision is a long term statement of a desired future, and is typically elaborated by a statement of mission, which explains the rationale of the organization and the means of achieving the vision.  Based on the mission statement, more specific objectives are then developed.

I’ve recently become skeptical of the vision thing, especially as a definition of leadership.  At a practical level, many groups and organizations create (or unveil) a new statement of vision, mission, and objectives, experience about three weeks of buzz, then ignore the stated vision, etc. and go on their merry way.

There are several reasons for this. Some plans are simply not implementable – they bear little relevance to the actual work “on the ground.” Others are almost immediately outdated, simply because things change so quickly. To quote Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, “Any plan won’t survive its first encounter with reality. The reality will always be different. It will never be the plan.”  And when this happens the plan becomes irrelevant and simply takes up shelf-space.

Second, and even worse, is the opposite effect – groups and organizations become so tied to their vision that it acts as a straightjacket, preventing members of the group from recognizing emerging trends and responding to those new circumstances. Many start-ups fail precisely because their founders are so tied to the their vision, so psychologically committed, that they fail to see that what they hope to accomplish is unachievable or has already been done by someone else, preempting the market.  And often just a slight deviation from the vision would have saved the company.

Certainly groups and organizations need a direction or a path to start out on, but they also must recognize when they need to move in a new direction or take a new path. More than tunnel vision, they need peripheral vision, the ability to see the big picture, including emerging threats and opportunities.  And they need agility, the capacity to learn and to change directions in both a nimble and sophisticated way.  Indeed, I would say that the capacity for agility and adaptability trumps vision and plan every time.

Third, in my view, the vision thing is simply not essential to leadership.  Leadership is about energizing a group, an organization, or a society.  Certainly a group may be energized by the beauty and elegance of a vision – think, “I have a dream” – but there are many others ways that groups can be energized as well.   A group may be energized in reaction to a disaster; a group may be energized by an attack from outside; a group may be energized by someone modeling excellence in performance.

The role of the leader is not to create the vision, but to develop and articulate a direction and purpose for the group or organization.  The opposite – having a vision or mission imposed by the leader – may generate early excitement, but over the long term will likely suck energy away from the group or organization.   And, as we noted before, visions and plans quickly encounter “contrary realities” and lose their relevance to a rapidly changing “real world.”  Frequently, those “on the ground” will recognize those contrary realities more quickly than those at the top and active resistance may occur.

A vision, in such cases, quickly turns into fantasy.   Just as many other “positives” carry with them the seeds of their “negatives,” so it is with vision.  Merriam-Webster cites the following synonyms for “vision”: chimera, conceit, daydream, delusion, fancy, figment, hallucination, illusion, phantasm, pipe dream, unreality, fantasy.  How many visions have you seen that ultimately turn into delusion, etc.?

Finally, leadership must appeal to both the head and especially the heart. In contrast to real acts of leadership that do both, most strategic planning processes implicitly seek to rationalize the organization’s vision through statements of mission and objectives that drain the vision of whatever emotive power it may have held at the outset.  In implementation, vision dissolves into technique.