At first glance, it would seem hard to imagine two organizations more different from each other than the Catholic Church and the U.S. Army.

But then again. . . .

They’re both vast, sprawling entities with people and resources deployed around the globe. They’re doggedly hierarchical, with layers of staff, each subordinate to the one above, all reporting ultimately to one supreme commander-in-chief. And, like all complex organizations, they both resist change mightily.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • What secular fields might have gifts to offer the church that you may be overlooking?
  • How do Christian institutional leaders help laity think theologically about their skills and talents and empower them to use those gifts in service to the church?
  • What would your organization look like if it had more peer-to-peer learning similar to CompanyCommand? What would need to happen to make that possible?
  • What structural or systematic changes does your organization need to make to position itself for success? What are your organization’s inherent obstacles to change?

Fortunately for the Army and the Catholic Church, few people know, understand and love both as well as retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik. A one-time seminarian who wrestled as a young man with a call to the priesthood, Dubik is a soldier-scholar who last year brought to a close an extraordinary 40-year career in the military.

His final assignment, right out of today’s headlines: overseeing the training of Iraqi security forces. Before that, he was the Army’s official change agent, helping to lead it through one of the most sweeping transitions in U.S. military history.

Now, less than a year after retirement, Dubik, 59, is sharing some of what he learned in the Army -- specifically his considerable organizational knowledge and skills -- to help improve the functioning of the Catholic Church in the United States.

“When I left the Army, I did not want to work full time in corporate America,” Dubik said. “I’d led large organizations, I’d had high-pressure jobs. But I knew I wanted to work in areas that I am passionate about.”

One of those is the Catholic Church, which he wants to help “adapt to some very difficult conditions.”

That is an understatement. As an article earlier this year in Commonweal noted, the church has been rocked not only by clergy sexual abuse scandals, but also by widespread mismanagement of financial and human resources. A study at Villanova University, for example, estimates that half of dioceses in the U.S. have experienced significant embezzlement.

Leadership Roundtable

Dubik is channeling his new work through the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, which he serves as a board member. Launched in 2004, the Roundtable is a lay-led nonprofit aimed at addressing the church’s structural problems by bringing better administrative practices to dioceses and parishes. Each June, the Roundtable holds a national meeting at the Wharton School of Business, bringing together bishops, priests, CEOs and nonprofit leaders to explore ways to improve church operations, increase financial accountability and help restore credibility.

Though the Roundtable is focused solely on the Catholic Church, its work is being watched with interest by leaders in other denominations. Protestants, too, need better management.

But what exactly does a retired general know that could help the church, Catholic or otherwise?

As an infantryman and paratrooper, Dubik knows how to march with a full pack and jump out of planes. He has led troops into battle. He commanded peacekeeping forces in Haiti and in Bosnia. With a master’s degree in philosophy, he has taught and studied at the U.S Military Academy and other prestigious universities including Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But Dubik is not proposing a corps of parachuting priests. What Dubik knows that can help the church is this: He knows how to transform organizations. Earlier this decade, he played a leading role in planning and bringing about one of the most extensive transformations in the Army’s history, helping it adapt to a new world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Wanting to break the Cold War mold, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki set out to reshape the Army into a more nimble, flexible force that could adapt to and address a variety of threats.

To help accomplish that task, Shinseki created a new Army position, “deputy commanding general for transformation,” and appointed Dubik. As the Wall Street Journal described it in a 2000 article, Dubik was “essentially, the first Army officer assigned to the 21st century.”

The stimulant of outside ideas

Affable and approachable, Dubik defies any Patton-like preconceptions one might have about a battle-seasoned officer who has worked at the highest levels of the Pentagon. He readily concedes that not everything can or should be imported into the church from the secular world.

Local congregations are inherently and pervasively religious and should remain so. They are also not bottom-line operations focused on reaching goals for the next quarter or satisfying shareholders, but are communities of believers and a witness of sacrifice for others. Yet, leaders of any organization -- church, business or military -- can learn much by looking to other fields for new ideas, Dubik said.

“We know that outside ideas from corporate America don’t completely apply to the military just as outside ideas from corporate America don't apply perfectly to the church,” Dubik said. “But it is an embedded part of a senior leader's responsibility to bring in ideas out of other professions as stimulants.”

The first step, he said, is to “understand the essence of the idea as distinct from how that idea is manifested in one professional milieu or another.”

Dubik’s point is vividly illustrated by a program he is pitching to the Roundtable: a Web-based, peer-to-peer leadership development program that priests could use to quicken the pace of institutional change by learning and sharing with each other what actually works. Basically, Dubik wants to create online “communities of practice” that could cut through the bureaucracy and help priests and others in the church do their jobs better.

The proposal is inspired by “CompanyCommand,” a very real program that Dubik protected and promoted during his tenure as the Army’s official change agent. Still in use, CompanyCommand and a similar Web forum,, were designed to short-circuit the military’s “silo” mentality and spread new knowledge as rapidly as possible rather than let it linger and die somewhere up the chain of command.

The websites are highly praised by the young officers who use them. When rumors circulated earlier this year that the Web forums might be shut down as part of Pentagon budget cuts, soldiers rallied to their defense.

“(CompanyCommand) offers young officers and company grade leaders a forum to speak candidly with each other, conduct informal (reviews) on personal performance and share the lessons learned so that the mistakes of today do not repeat themselves,” one officer posted in an online discussion board.

“It’s a place where ideas are contested, haggled over, defended and advanced,” another wrote.

Cavemen and communities of practice

Lt. Col. Nate Allen, who created CompanyCommand in 1995 with another then-new captain at a base in Hawaii, told this summer’s Roundtable gathering that such communities of practice are not new but have been around forever.

“Cavemen were probably gathering around the fire asking each other, ‘Now how did you kill that sabre-toothed tiger?’” he said during a panel discussion with Dubik.

Years ago, when Allen and his friend brought CompanyCommand to the Army brass for their consideration, they opted to protect it from forces that might normally attack such an intrusion into the Army way of life. CompanyCommand was just the kind of initiative Dubik liked, and he helped build a firewall around it and get the funding it needed to expand.

A difficult undertaking, especially at first, that effort was a textbook lesson for the church or any large organization about the inherent obstacles to change. By nature, large organizations are set up to resist change, he said.

“Part of what makes an organization work is its ability to be consistent and to be repeatable and to be stable and steady,” Dubik said. “In times when (external) change isn’t as rapid, those are really good qualities. When (external) change becomes rapid, those qualities diminish in their utility.”

Ultimately, the preservation of any organization requires adaptation to changed conditions, Dubik said.

The challenge, of course, is how to implement that change. In CompanyCommand’s case, the proposal could have been -- and probably was -- seen by many senior officers as a threat. As a 2006 article in the Harvard Business Review noted, CompanyCommand and similar peer-to-peer approaches force an organization to give up considerable control.

Excitement and anxiety

“One of the fears we had to face was, ‘What are they going to be talking about? What are they going to be saying about us?” Dubik said at the Roundtable gathering.

But as soon as senior officers were brought in to watch the online discussions among junior officers from across the globe, they were sold. Once again, a powerful lesson about change.

“Every change, even the most positive change, brings with it two natural items: high excitement and high anxiety,” Dubik said. “You cannot have an important new development without both. So the issue is how to capitalize on the excitement and over time allay the anxiety.”

Whether in the church or the Army, the way to do that is through open discussion, Dubik said. Whether bishops or generals, senior leaders need to bring in new ideas and then have a discussion about what applies and what doesn’t, and most importantly, how and why. In that process, an institution gains the ability to adapt, just like a living organism, Dubik said.

“An organism that builds in an adaptive process has a higher probability of survival than an organism that has no adaptive process,” he said.

Along the way, a series of “anxiety points” will inevitably arise, but those just have to be dealt with openly and honestly, Dubik said: “It’s the only way you can work a process like this.”

However difficult the process, the results are worth it, Dubik said. Both the process and peer-to-peer leadership development in general foster good practices faster and more effectively than standard approaches. They also help develop bonds of affection and support throughout an organization, whether junior officers or priests.

‘I need help’

Dubik is using that same process in working with the Roundtable on the peer-to-peer website for priests, moving slowly, building relationships, talking with others and working through the anxiety points.

“We are in the final development of a prototype that we expect to pilot in the fall,” he said. “We are taking our time making sure the development process is as inclusive as possible. We chose an iterative development methodology, improving the prototype incrementally.”

Since the Wharton conference, they’ve been working with several dioceses and Catholic organizations to gather names of priests who may want to be part of the pilot and are continuing to get input and advice about the prototype website.

At least one priest is excited by the possibilities. During the presentation at this summer’s Wharton gathering, the Rev. Kevin Kennedy of Cheverly, Md., said a CompanyCommand website for priests would be a godsend. Like many pastors, Kennedy has moved from parish to parish and served in vastly different settings, sometimes finding himself on the first day at a new church with only a secretary and a religious education leader and no mentors who could have helped.

“I love being a pastor,” Kennedy said. “But I need help.”

Dubik attributes his openness to innovation at least in part to the church. A native of Erie, Penn., Dubik was born and raised a Catholic and grew up wanting to be a priest. He spent a year in a seminary of the Passionist order, but decided it was a call he could not answer. It was 1968, the height of the Vietnam war, and Dubik knew he was likely to be drafted. He enrolled in ROTC at Gannon University, a Catholic university in Erie where he earned his undergraduate degree. He planned to stay only a couple of years in the Army.

“But I liked it, and I never got out,” he said.

Dubik brought to the Army a passion for the church and a love of philosophy, which he studied at Gannon and Johns Hopkins and later taught at West Point. It is a discipline that helped him keep an open mind as he rose through the ranks.

“To study philosophy is to study multiple perspectives that concern themselves with the same thing,” he said. “That requires a certain amount of mental flexibility, and that has helped me an awful lot.”

The stakes are high

In the best of Catholic tradition, Dubik has a deep appreciation for the virtues, especially one that you might not expect to find in someone who spent years wearing stars on his shoulders: humility.

Humility applies to every profession and should be a trait of any leader, secular or religious, he said. For Dubik, it took humility to realize that what he knew about being a company commander in 1975 was radically different from what a company commander needs to know today.

“Some of the essence of command remains the same, but so much of the tools and the environment of command have changed,” he said. “So if you’re humble enough you will recognize that you don’t know everything you think you know.”

That’s not bad advice for anyone wanting to come to the church with a new idea for change -- as well as anyone interested in peer-to-peer learning, Dubik said. Others have good ideas. Members of any community -- whether the Army, a corporation or a church -- are passionate about their work and want to improve.

That is especially true when the stakes are high. As a PowerPoint presentation about CompanyCommand put it, “The consequences of losing in the Army are serious, so it makes sense that Army leaders are passionately committed to figuring out and sharing what works.”

Sounds a lot like the church.