How to Pick the Next Pope

A few years ago I was having dinner with a high school friend who had just been ordained as a bishop in the Catholic Church. He told me that he'd inherited two assistants, both older than 80, one of them almost deaf. I asked whether he'd received any integration support or training given his promotion from individual performer to manager of a large and complex diocese. Of course, the answer was no.

As an executive search consultant with three decades' experience in leader selection and development who is also a committed Catholic, I've long been frustrated by some of the people practices in my beloved Church. My friend is one of more than 4,000 bishops reporting to the pope, who in turn lead some 400,000 priests, who tend to more than one billion followers. In such an organization, few things are more important than making great appointments. And yet the church's record on small transitions — like my friend's — makes me worry about its ability to execute on big ones, such as choosing the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who this week became the first pope to resign in 600 years.

One positive sign is the pope's wise choice to retire at 85, acknowledging that he no longer has the "strength of mind and body" to do the job in such a rapidly changing world. I wish more executives would recognize that age inevitably erodes decision-making skills and particularly the fluid intelligence that enables us to solve problems not encountered before.

At the same time, we know that appointing his successor is a much more complicated and challenging decision. The pope's job is vastly different than the ones done by cardinals, just as the CEO role is nothing like those of C-Level executives. The pope is alone at the top, with no peers and no day-to-day boss (other than God, who happens to be a master delegator). He has to decide on all sorts of complex issues, in an volatile global environment, facing enormous pressure. Meanwhile, there is a fixed pool of candidates: the cardinals who make up the selection committee. (It's an unusual process in which the recruiters are the potential hires and the direct reports choose their own future leader!)

Unfortunately neither the candidate pool nor the election process will change before next month. But the cardinals can at least make sure they consider the right criteria. So far, speculation on the pope's successor had centered on representation: three quarters of Catholics live in the developing world, while two-thirds of the electors (and candidates) come from Europe. But this is a side issue. What matters are the factors that best predict leadership success.

When I consider candidates for CEO roles, my primary concern is the person's potential to perform well in larger, more complex roles. There are three central indicators.

The first is the right motive. Does the candidate display the proverbial paradoxical blend of fierce commitment and deep personal humility? Is he really committed to building lasting greatness and to make our world a better place, for truly selfless reasons? While most cardinals should hopefully satisfy this criterion, of course some will do it more than others.

I also gauge potential by looking for four key leadership assets: curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. Does the candidate proactively seek new experiences, ideas and knowledge, soliciting feedback and staying open to learning and change? Can he gather and make sense of a vast range of information and discover new insights that, when applied, transform past views or set new directions? Is he good at connecting on an emotional level with others, communicating a persuasive vision and helping others stay connected with the broader organization? Does he seek self-awareness, demonstrate empathy, and inspire commitment? Finally, will he have the strength to persist in the face of difficulties and the ability to bounce back from major setbacks or adversity?

Last, but not least, I look at the candidate's ability to make great appointments. As Jim Collins once said during a Charlie Rose interview, "The most important leadership skill is, clearly, the ability to make great people decisions, to put people in the right seats and to rigorously take them off the bus when you have to." This is even more important in the Catholic Church; given its flat structure, huge reach and geographic spread, delegation is essential. So electors must carefully analyze candidate's track record on hiring, promotion and developing people. Have they made good appointments and worked to move or improve underperformers? Have they championed diversity and inclusion? Have they mentored great successors throughout their career?

When the 118 eligible cardinals cast their votes in March, I sincerely hope they leave aside any personal interests and, following Saint Benedict's rule of "ora et labora", make sure to diligently evaluate the best contenders for the papacy. While they do the hard work of assessing, I'll do the praying.

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