The Cardinal and the Sparrow: Effective Organizational Change

You can’t make an omelet without breaking some legs. One of those legs is Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Cardinal Raymond Burke of the Roman Catholic Church was in the news recently, although perhaps not entirely in a way that he would have liked. The good Cardinal recently suffered a significant and dramatic change in status, sort of the equivalent of an admiral being demoted to swimming pool monitor: from Cardinal and head of the ecclesiastic church, he is now the patron of the Knights of Malta. This is not, to put it mildly, an upward career move. Indeed, one might well imagine that the Cardinal and the Bluebird of Happiness are not exactly on speaking terms right now.

The question, of course, is why did this happen? The ostensible cause is that the Cardinal did not agree with Pope Francis. While that may, in fact, be the proximate reason, the real reason is a bit more subtle. It has to do with the often messy and awkward process of organizational change. The world is constantly changing, whether we are looking at the religious landscape of the Church or the business landscape. Businesses rise up and achieve success within the environment in which they are founded. Many of them then go out of business or fade into the background: still important, but no longer dominant. Think Xerox, IBM, Microsoft, to name three, with Google possibly preparing to become a fourth.

Organizational change is never an easy thing. The larger the organization and the more deeply entrenched its culture and behavior, the more difficult it is to change. Few organizations are larger and have a more deeply entrenched culture than the Roman Catholic Church. Change can be a lot like trying to turn the QE II: it’s not something that happens easily or quickly. But Francis is making it happen. How?

To begin with, he is moving slowly. He is not trying to change the church all at once, but rather in small steps. He raises issues and then builds on them; he first suggests different ideas and gets people thinking about them. He then starts to act on those ideas and concepts.

Part of what makes change difficult is that an organization became successful by doing things a certain way. They have learned how to succeed, and everyone knows that nothing succeeds like success… except, of course, when it doesn’t. But trying to change those comforting habits is challenging: like throwing away that old coat that fits just right, the change simply feels wrong.

The first step, therefore, is painting a picture of the future: tell people what change will look like. This can be done through vibrant and dramatic speeches or through quiet questions. What matters is that it happens. Once people know where you are going, they are much more comfortable following you. It’s when they don’t know, or don’t want to know, that people dig in their heels. You have to make it easy for people to follow.

However, no leader can change a large organization on their own. There are simply too many people, too much psychological inertia. It is critical to get other organizational leaders on board. Show them the future and help them become comfortable with it, so that they will then share that vision with their followers. The more people who come on board, the more people will come on board: once change gets large enough, it starts to snowball.

But what about those who hear and refuse to follow? Often, they need to be removed from power: politely, calmly, and firmly. There can be no doubt, no question that the snowball will run over anyone who is refusing to move. Provided that people know which way to start moving, this approach can be remarkably effective at convincing those who have doubts that they should jump on the bandwagon. The catch, of course, is that you can’t get rid of too many or move too fast: scare people too much and they freeze or panic. If people are scared by the change process, they will swiftly become scared of the change itself.

By demoting Cardinal Burke in such a public fashion, Pope Francis is sending a very clear message. By finding a place for him, albeit a minor one, Francis is also recognizing his years of service. It is not always necessary to get rid of those who won’t change; rather, leading change involves moving them to places where they can still help the organization but can no longer impede the change process. Instead of being a focus of attention, they become boring and unimportant.

If you want to lead change effectively, you need to show people the future. Paint the picture that will get them thinking about how the world, or at least the company, can be a better place. Ask the questions that will get people to become unhappy with the status quo and start thinking about how change could be a good thing. Show them the way, recruit followers to spread the message, and strategically replace those who won’t move. Don’t be afraid to turn a few brightly colored cardinals into boring sparrows.


The Leadership Blueprint can help you with organizational change. Find out how.

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