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A still from the film ‘Spotlight’. After months of investigation, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team blew the lid off one of the Catholic Church’s darkest secrets.
A still from the film ‘Spotlight’. After months of investigation, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team blew the lid off one of the Catholic Church’s darkest secrets.

The Spotlight on incest in organizations

It often takes an outsider to drive change in an organization. But being an outsider isn't easy. The film Spotlight offers pointers.

That the 2015 movie, which documents the story of an investigation by reporters of The Boston Globe into sexual abuse of children by clerics of the Catholic Church, is brilliant is secondary. Primarily, it is about leadership against the odds. That the setting is the newsroom of a popular newspaper is incidental. The film is yet to be released in India. But most cinema aficionados already know the plot.

The Boston Globe is successful and respected in a predominantly Catholic community. Its rolls include Spotlight, a team of four investigative reporters. When the incumbent editor retires, everybody assumes somebody from the system will be elevated. But the management brings in Marty Baron, a Jewish man and an outsider to Boston, to overhaul the system.

When he gets down to the job, a sparsely reported news item catches his eye—of children being sexually abused by priests in the Catholic Church. Why, the “outsider" in the new system wonders, and asks that of the “insiders".

The first response is that the newspaper has already reported on it, the authorities at the Church have taken action—and that these are one-off episodes. Baron declines to buy the argument. Some debate later, the Spotlight team gets into action.

Now, why didn’t Baron mount a frontal assault on the larger system in need of a bigger overhaul? When looked at from Baron’s perspective, it made sense in the longer term to go after small wins. Most leaders, who come in from the outside, to make their presence felt, get into slash and burn mode. This can backfire.

That is why, with some convincing, a team most likely to buy into fresh ideas seemed the wisest thing to do. Months of investigation later, Spotlight blows the lid off one of the Catholic Church’s darkest secrets—that it actively connived to protect the worst kind of offenders across the world. It won The Boston Globe global accolades, and it finally took a man like Pope Francis, the current head of the church and an outsider to the system that is the Vatican, to apologize.

When the team at The Boston Globe got down to investigating the scandal, what stunned them was that their findings weren’t new. The Church knew about it all along. But a medieval code of honour compelled its leaders to not just eliminate traces of incriminating documents, but protect the perpetrators as well. From an editor’s perspective, this was as damning as it gets.

When the publisher got wind of what was brewing, he paused as well. After all, 53% of the newspaper’s readers were Catholic. If this went public, it could antagonize readers and advertisers. But Baron held the ground and insisted on having his way. The reason he could do that is because he was an outsider who had the advantage of distance on his side. He understood this actually addressed the readers’ unstated need—they know the underbelly of the system they believe in.

Kavi Arasu, a leadership and talent development professional, has an interesting hypothesis on the insider versus outsider debate. “There is a certain rhythm to how we think and how we behave," he says. So long as it is in sync, it is comfortable. But for an individual or organizations to develop, this rhythm must be challenged. That is painful because the rhythm comes under scrutiny. The most convenient thing to do then is to turn a blind eye and imagine there is no problem.

To understand this, consider Pope Benedict XVI, predecessor to current Pope Francis. He was the classical insider. Of European descent, he issued a secret edict in 2001 to all bishops in the Catholic Church that the interests of the church be put ahead of child safety. When he finally resigned, many were relieved because he was accused of not doing enough to contain the damage.

This raises another question. Why didn’t anybody raise a red flag when Pope Benedict XVI was practising wilful blindness? Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the four persons in the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe, summed it up: “When you have powerful, beloved institutions, it’s possible it can be too powerful or too beloved for people to want to ask them questions."

Into all of this, insiders are impeded by the fact that a large part of their actions are embedded in the past they come from. When challenged, they carry the burden of having to explain why they did things in a certain way. Baron, the outsider, does not have to carry the burden of history.

This is not to suggest insiders cannot do the job. There was this one instance at one of India’s most respected firms when a member of the senior team was elevated to the CEO’s role. It was met with much applause internally.

Overnight though, his persona and actions changed. It was only a matter of time before insiders rebelled against him. They argued that they were doing things as he had envisioned it would be when he was part of the senior team. “Because now my role as CEO demands that," he shot back. Such leaders are rare.

But being an outsider isn’t easy either. There is this one instance when a large Indian professional firm got an American executive to build change. Almost immediately, he ran into hostility—not vociferous because everybody knew he had the management’s backing. So each time a meeting was called for, everybody in the room would confer in Hindi just so that they may make the American uncomfortable.

Being an outsider takes its toll on the soul as well. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an outsider to Delhi. Barack Obama was an outsider. “But these men have something brazen about them. They couldn’t care less," says Arasu. The moral then is that to be a successful outsider, you need one of two things: Either a benign system or a thick skin.

That brings us back to the Vatican and the incumbent Pope Francis. He comes across as possessing neither. All of his predecessors were European. But he comes from a South American background and grew up in the slums of Argentina. Has he encountered opposition? Yes.

Among the first things he did was to overhaul a long-standing hierarchy. That also meant a clean-up of the Vatican Bank, the machinations of which are shrouded in mystery. And if all this weren’t enough, he is the first pope to have taken the issue of climate change head-on in a speech. Why is the head of the Catholic Church getting into things he ought not to be meddling in?

The machinations of the Vatican can only be speculated upon. But it is possible after Pope Benedict XVI resigned, there were a few who wanted to be the pope. Perhaps they could not arrive at a consensus. The only option then was to settle on an outsider, who surprises by taking charge.

That explains the sequence in Spotlight when the cardinal at Boston calls on Baron to suggest he stay away from the Church. Baron goes back to his office and recounts the encounter to the team. When they vocalize their concerns around the potential fallouts, Baron shoots back: “I am not asking you to do this. I am telling you to do this."

Read an unabridged version on foundingfuel.com.

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director, Founding Fuel.

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