What the Pope can Teach you About Business

Well, I’ve managed the blog on my own for nearly five years – but this week I had to seek inspiration from a higher authority: very nearly the Highest…

Mind you, I only found it through one of the more prominent supporters of Mammon – the Harvard Business Review.

I came across The 15 Diseases of Leadership, originally written by Pope Francis and translated into business-speak for us by one of HBR’s columnists.

A lot of the Pope’s ‘diseases’ – presumably aimed at what must be a vast bureaucracy in the Vatican – were vague to say the least. I’m still trying to work out no. 8 on his list – ‘the disease of existential schizophrenia.’ If any members of TAB York are suffering from it, maybe you could let me know at the next Board meeting?

But interestingly there are three points in the Pontiff’s list which really struck a chord with me: the dangers of excessive planning; the positive attitude of a leader and something that’s always irked me in my business career – extravagance.

I’ve spoken several times in blog posts of Rework – the irreverent business book written by the founders of 37 Signals, or Basecamp as the company’s now called.

One of the first – and most striking chapters – in Rework is ‘Planning is Guessing.’ As a business coach you might expect me to disagree violently with that statement. But the authors are right:

Unless you’re a fortune-teller, long term business planning is a fantasy. There are too many factors that are out of your hands: market conditions, competitors, customers, the economy…

Let me explain: I’m absolutely in favour of planning. I’m absolutely in favour of spending a serious amount of time in October or November making plans and setting targets for the coming year. But too many people do that and then think making the plans has put the business on auto-pilot – that success is guaranteed.

It hasn’t and it isn’t. Plans need to be kept under review. KPIs need to be constantly monitored. And you need to be prepared to change your plans if circumstances dictate. What’s more, the Pope agrees with me:

Things need to be prepared well, but without ever falling into the temptation of trying to eliminate spontaneity and serendipity, which is always more flexible than any human planning.

Put more simply, we live in a rapidly changing world. Your plans need to be flexible enough to change with it.

The second point is one Pope Francis describes as, ‘the disease of a downcast face.’ Couldn’t have put it better myself – and I think it’s one of the hardest things about being a leader. Whatever’s happened; whatever problems you have – either at home or in the office – you have to be positive. If you’re not optimistic and positive, then there’s no chance of your team being optimistic and positive. As the Chinese say, ‘A man without a smiling face should not open a shop.’ He probably shouldn’t try and motivate his staff either…

Lastly, the Pope and I turn to ‘the disease of extravagance and self-exhibition.’ My colleague in the Vatican sees this in leaders who seek “material gain [and] the front pages.” I see it in champagne…

Maybe there are some Puritans somewhere in the Reid family tree. I don’t like to see conspicuous consumption – especially when it’s the business that’s paying. You don’t need to spend that much money on Cristal champagne at York races.


Sometimes you see signs that the business is being run for the wrong reasons: as an old school bank manager once said to me, “If I see a new Merc and the business is less than five years old, I’m looking to cancel the overdraft facility.”

With that – and a word of thanks to my assistant for this week – I’ll leave you to enjoy the weekend. Next week I’ll be looking at an increasingly important question: do people still buy from people? Or as more and more business goes online, is it becoming impossible to offer a truly personal service?

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