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MY NEXT BOOK Year 9 Chapter 3 Ron Johnson and the new Pope Francis

March 27, 2013

  Oxford Thesaurus – Easily confused words:  Contrast, Compare

Contrast means “note the differences”  whereas Compare means “note the similarities.”

As many of you know, I set aside a block of time on weekends at the Farm to read broadly.  This weekend it was literature (Shakespeare), investments (John McStay), management (Peter Drucker, Jim Collins), and of course devotional reading (I am reading a lot of Catholic authors these days).

This past Friday, I found myself reading two well-written pieces in the current issue of The New Yorker (March 25).  The two men I read about side by side couldn't have been farther apart in all respects save one.  Both men had been primarily tasked with turn-arounds of large organizations.  In one case JCPenney and the other the Catholic Church.  I asked myself, 'could there be any similarity or was it pure coincidence that I read both in one sitting?'  Let's start with JCPenney.

The turn-around trap — James Surowieki
     “In January of 2012, Ron Johnson, the new CEO of JCPenney, gave a speech unveiling his ambitious strategy for nationwide retailer … Penney was barely profitable and Johnson was a retail superstar (Target and Apple).  He made it clear that he wasn't going to just stabilize Penney; he was going to revolutionize it to make it 'America's favorite store.'  His credo was 'Stick with me.  I've always been successful' (stated more in Texas language: “my way or the highway”).

     “Fourteen months later, JCPenney is America's favorite cautionary tale,” says Surowieki.  “Customers have abandoned the store in mass.  Penney lost almost a billion dollars in profits, and half a billion in the final quarter last year alone.  The stock price has fallen 60%.  Twenty-one thousand employees have lost their jobs.”

Rumors of Johnson's immediate departure are a weekly event in The Dallas Morning News.  Mark Cohen, the former CEO of Sears Canada, who is now a professor at Columbia, told Surowieki, “The biggest problem with Johnson's strategy is simple.  He misread what Penney's customers wanted.  The circumstances of Johnson's previous companies were radically different than Penney.”

Smoke signals – John Cassidy

            The new Pope Francis has a completely different turn-around problem.  He has the wind at his back.  Cassidy and others believe that he will choose a back to basics approach in doctrine and a more pragmatic approach in contextualizing Catholicism for its 1.2 billion Catholics – nearly twenty percent of the globe's population.

Cassidy says, “With church attendance falling in many countries and with the ramifications of the sex-abuse scandal still being felt from Los Angeles to Rome, the key issue for many Catholics (and lapsed Catholics) is whether Francis will move the Church in a more progressive direction. 

“There will be great hope invested in him.  He himself has led a simple life: he lived in a modest apartment in downtown Buenos Aires, cooked his own meals, and rode the bus to work.”  His theatrics in Rome were similar.  He wore a white robe with little pomp and ceremony.  He rode through St. Peter's crowd in an open popemobile – no barrier between the people and their Pope.

Here is what we know from prior experience:  A recent profile in The National Catholic Reporter noted, “Bergoglio is seen as an unwaveringly Orthodox on matters of sexual morality.  … During the 1970's as head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina, he opposed the rise of liberation theology, which many conservatives dismissed as a Marxist version of Christianity.”  Some believe he may hark back to the second Vatican Council of which resulted in inviting lay people and the congregation as a whole to play a more engaged role in the Church.  Surveys of the Catholic laity show that they want to serve as well as attend rites and ritual.

The history and choice of name of St Francis as well as his Jesuit background would lead you to believe that there is likely to be more interest in alleviating poverty and the afflicted.  I have been absorbed lately by a recent book authored by a prolific and influential writer, George Weigel, with the brave title, Evangelical Catholicism.  For me, Weigel's “big idea” is a dramatically increased role for the laity.  My own calling and mission has been “To transform the latent energy in American Christianity to active energy.”

I, of course, am a devoted evangelical Protestant Christian.  Lately I have been working with some energetic Catholics to transfer what we at Leadership Network have discovered working with large churches, the fastest growing in the United States.  While there are certainly differences in doctrine, when it gets to the practice of serving others as a vital force for good in a functioning society, we are finding that most everything is strikingly similar.

It is not the theory of religion we are working with as much as the practice of religion.  To quote St Paul, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same spirit.  There are differences of ministry but the same Lord.  There are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.”  (I Corinthians 12: 4-6)
“In essentials: unity.  In non-essentials: liberty.  And in all else: charity.”
      — St. Augustine

One of my favorite passages these days is I Corinthians 13.  This wonderful summation is about the supremacy of love over gifts.  It ends by saying, “And now abide by faith, hope, love, these three: but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is an action word.  Love always has an object supported by an action.

What are the Lessons?

1.  Peter Drucker told me once, “The day a company begins to be run for the benefit of the insiders and not the benefit of the customers is the day that institution begins to die.”

Peter always started with three questions that are represented by a print in my outer office:


2.  Build on your own islands of health and strength – do what God designed you to do.  Mark Cohen put it this way, “He (Ron Johnson) had never been a CEO, never mounted or managed a turn-around, had limited fashion-apparel experience, and had no experience in the middle-market space.”

3.  Pope Francis has been a man of the people all of his life.  As Archbishop of the Jesuits in Argentina, he had played a vital leadership role.  He was the runner-up for Pope when Benedict was elected.  He pays attention to the customer.  He rides the bus!


About Linda:  She is fine and leading a relatively normal life.  Our next, and probably most important, meeting with all three doctors is scheduled for April 9.  That is where we expect to learn what comes next (probably surgery, and when).  We are unspeakably grateful for your prayers.


As always, I welcome your thoughts.  You can email me personally at, or converse with the entire community at

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