“Only people of the spirit change things. The rest of us just rearrange them.”
The insightful quote wasn’t uttered by a religious figure, or by a touchy-feely New Age philosopher. Rather, it came from one of the most willful and domineering figures ever to strut across the human stage: Napoleon.
The conqueror of Europe, whose dominion did indeed prove short-lived, was sufficiently clear-eyed to recognize the transitory nature of his military and political triumphs. But leaders today are often less astute. Although transformation has become a kind of holy grail in many organizations, it’s often viewed as an engineering or structural challenge that can be executed from the top: Get all the design elements right, and transformation is sure to follow.
The reality is that meaningful, lasting change occurs only when a critical mass of people throughout an enterprise — not all of them, but a sufficient number — begin to approach their work and commitments in a whole new way. Sustained transformation requires transformed people, as Lou Gerstner recognized when he noted that a reborn IBM could not be run by “the guys in white shirts” who had long defined the company’s culture. Gerstner, who ran Big Blue from 1993 to 2002, began the necessary work of supporting and engaging different people and the same people in different ways. By doing so, he was able to transform IBM from a complacent manufacturer of computer hardware into a more nimble and profitable provider of computing solutions, including services.
Such engagement does not happen by fiat, by a leader decreeing it must be so, although we continue to see leaders who stubbornly go down this path. My own favorite example, which I wrote about last year, is former Hewlett Packard CEO Leo Apotheker’s sudden August 2011 announcement that the entire company — all 300,000-plus people — would on one specified day in September abandon their traditional business model, seize new terrain, and alter their modus operandi. Apotheker’s own tenure lasted about three weeks after this grandiose “Day One” declaration, which sowed confusion and despair in the ranks. The annals of business failure are littered with similar disasters. In the real world, people don’t change because the CEO tells them they must do so overnight.
Sometimes leaders do try to broadly engage people in a change effort, only to find their efforts stymied by entrenched interests or silos at senior levels. One classic example from business history was New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc., (NUMMI) an ill-fated partnership struck in 1984 between General Motors and Toyota. Based in Fremont, California, NUMMI was an effort to help frontline GM workers and supervisors learn the principles of lean manufacturing and the legendary Toyota production system (TPS) first-hand. Though the venture proved transformative for individual participants and resulted in vastly improved quality for the vehicles coming off the assembly line, GM didn’t change much as an organization as a result. The reason? Positional leaders outside the plant saw NUMMI’s innovation as a threat to their way of doing business. The Fremont plant was ultimately shut down in 2010, a year after GM filed for bankruptcy. (In a wonderfully ironic footnote, the old NUMMI site is today owned and operated by Tesla Motors.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about how transformations succeed and fail as I follow the fascinating efforts of Pope Francis to reinvigorate one of the few 2,000-year-old institutions on earth. The Catholic Church as an organization has provided the very prototype of top-down hierarchy since the early Middle Ages, so opening it up structurally is a particularly daunting task. What’s remarkable is the agility with which this pope, who assumed his post in 2013 after the unprecedented resignation of a long-time Vatican power player who had become paralyzed in his role, approaches the difficult-to-reconcile tasks of reengaging a broad spectrum of grassroots believers at the level of spirit and imagination while also seeking to curb the power of an entrenched bureaucracy that views itself as the true arbiter of church culture.
In moving on both fronts simultaneously, the pope reveals his understanding of the two-step methodology required if sustained transformation is to flourish. First, a leader needs to create opportunities to build and connect with alternate constituencies in meaningful yet powerful symbolic ways in order to counterbalance vested interests nearer to hand. This approach was most vividly demonstrated in Francis’s drive to canonize Oscar Romero, the murdered bishop of El Salvador; the move had been blocked by the Roman Curia, the administrative arm of the Vatican, for 35 years. Soon after his installation, Pope Francis — the first South American to lead the church — embraced the effort, creating a groundswell of support across Latin America that included peasant villages, political allies, and advocates of liberation theology who had been marginalized or even banished from the church. In doing so, the pope created a counterweight to those curial princes in Rome who had viewed the effort as a threat to their personal fiefs and positional power. In May, Romero was beatified — the penultimate step to formal sainthood.
Second, rather than telling others that they need to change their ways, a leader seeking transformation must instead personally model a radically open style of leadership that sets the tone for what he or she wants to see happen. In this spirit, the pope remained in his modest Jesuit rooming house during his transition instead of moving into the palatial apartment prepared for him. He insisted on personally paying the fee at the desk upon leaving instead of having a retainer take care of it. He wore simple white robes and a skullcap at his investiture instead of the elaborate brocaded cope expected, and he rejected the scarlet slippers that had become a papal trademark. And most famously, he washed the feet of prisoners, including women and Muslims, at his first Holy Thursday service.
By acting as a simple, even humble priest from Day One of his papacy, the pope demonstrated his understanding of the basic insight of the saint whose name he took upon investiture: transformed people transform people. This is a truth leaders miss when they imagine their positional power alone can compel lasting change. Organizations can only be transformed when the people who comprise them are transformed, and people are changed by individuals who engage them at the level of spirit.
From Day One, the pope demonstrated his understanding of a simple insight: transformed people transform people.
This particular transformation effort isn’t finished, of course, and the forces of resistance can be wily and patient. As one senior curial official recently confided to long-term Vatican correspondent John Allen, “Bergoglio [Pope Francis] won’t be here forever, but we will.” That’s an extraordinarily bald and confident statement of faith on the irresistible nature of positional and bureaucratic power in an institution whose purpose, as Francis reminds us, is supposed to be pastoral. But if Napoleon is proved right yet again, the triumph of inertia is likely to be brief.