Think changing the culture of your organization is hard? Try changing the culture of the Catholic Church. Angelo Roncalli understood that. He knew the church had not kept up with changes in the world and called some people together to discuss the matter. It’s been fifty years since that discussion and the work continues. Now the church is at a turning point and Pope Francis I must do his part to complete its cultural change.

Argentina's cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, elected ...

Pope Francis I AFP/Getty Images

Let’s back up. In light of the church’s slow response to political, social, economic and technical changes around them, one of the first things Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli did when he became Pope John XXIII in 1958 was to call the Second Vatican Council “to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.” The council lasted a little over three years and resulted in changes in thinking and behaviors around the church itself, the liturgy, the roles of scripture and bishops.

Vatican II was an important step in the journey, not the be all and end all. Merely laying out a new direction is not enough to get people actually to change direction. True culture change requires changes in environment, values, attitudes, relationships and behaviors. Pope Francis will need to complete the change by focusing on relationships. Let’s look at how this has been done in the past:


Vatican II made fundamental changes in the environment of the Mass in having services conducted in the language of each congregation (instead of in Latin for all), and having the Mass celebrants turn around and face the congregation.


The change here was more a re-commitment to the values in scripture than in imposing new values. But that was different than what people had been doing immediately before then.


This was a big change “to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.” There’s evidence that opening the windows without putting in screens let some unwelcome creatures fly in with that fresh air. Corruption and child abuse are never welcome creatures.


This is the next step in the change. Given the new environment, 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.


While behaviors have evolved, the change in relationships can help people encourage the positive behaviors the church needs and root out the negative behaviors that are getting in the way.


Key Takeaways for Pope Francis

Build on the positive momentum your predecessors have created. Cut off the bad things. Focus on relationships both in the church and between the church and the rest of the world.

Implications for Business Leaders Today

  1. Culture matters. For most of us, culture is the only sustainable advantage
  2. In general, start a culture change with an attitude change
  3. Treat culture change as a marathon, not a sprint

It won’t be as hard to change the culture of your organization as it is to change the culture of the Catholic Church. But it is hard. Prepare in advance. It’s worth it. Implement, likely starting with an attitude change. Then, follow through with ongoing communication for as long as it takes.

This is a good example of step 2 of The New Leader’s Playbook: Engage the Culture and Your New Colleagues in the Right Context

Be careful about how you engage with the organization’s existing business context and culture. Crossing the need for change based on the context and the cultural readiness for change can help you decide whether to Assimilate,