The Pope as CEO

Last Updated Apr 22, 2008 8:56 AM EDT

Jeffrey Immelt and Joseph Ratzinger have more in common than you might think.

Immelt, the CEO of GE, and Ratzinger, the CEO (also known as pope) of the Catholic church, lead global, extremely complex organizations. Both have stellar brands to uphold. Both answer to a higher authority.

But the differences in their roles are fundamental as well. Immelt's company delivers products and services at a profit; Pope Benedict XVI's organization is primarily in the low-margin communications business. GE uses customer feedback to improve its product portfolio; the leader of the church is more likely to find guidance in scripture than parishoner polls. And while many of Immelt's 323,000 employees are women, including quite a few at senior levels, the pope's primary workforce is comprised of men.

But for Harvard Business blogger <b>John Baldoni</b>, CEOs and popes share three distinct leadership charateristics: they think "we" first, they are prepared to make the toughest decisions, and they temper power with compassion.

When he was a Cardinal, Ratzinger often acted as Pope Paul II's enforcer on doctrinal orthodoxy, a hard-nosed hard-liner, notes Baldoni. But since becoming pontiff, his image has changed to that of gentle, benevolent leader of the flock.

Today, as Pope Benedict XVI, he is perceived as a kindly man, a servant of the faithful. Are Ratzinger and Benedict one and the same man? Of course. The difference is that Ratzinger is now number one and as number one, he cannot indulge himself in churchly partisanship. He is the leader of all Catholics.
Long-term Value
I see another area where CEOs and popes have a lot in common: understanding the importance of connecting the work of the organization to a larger purpose and ensuring that its values and mission are preserved.

In this interview from 2005, three Harvard Business School scholars underscore the need for leaders to "forge new meaning and purpose for an organization and its employees." In other words, the bottom line isn't the only bottom line for chief executives.

BTW: Immelt, once a golden boy, is coming under fire at GE.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.