Pope Shows Ethical Leadership Knowing When to Leave

More than a few leaders in the corporate world could learn a lesson from Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down. The 85-year-old leader of more than a billion Catholics is making a move that is nearly unprecedented, for a pope: he’s going to walk out of office, rather than being carried out. It’s a decision one that should give pause to some CEOs and senior members of corporate boards of directors.

The Pope’s stated reasons are simple: at his age, he simply doesn’t feel like he’s got the strength to do a good job. Assuming that’s really the reason — and there is always speculation at times like this — the pontiff has made the right move. Part of the ethics of leadership is knowing when to call it quits.

Of course, wise leaders and wise organizations don’t just make the right decision at the right time; they plan ahead for when the time comes. But too few organizations think far enough ahead, partly because a leader’s future departure is an awkward topic, and partly because when things are going well it just doesn’t seem like a pressing matter. But leadership is too important to be left to the last minute.

There can be lots of good reasons for an aging leader to step down. Sometimes it’s a matter of failing health, and the resulting inability to keep up with workload. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of having been at the helm too long. An organization that never changes leaders can grow set in its ways and resistent to change. For corporate boards, having a very senior member — statistically very likely to be a white male — step down can be an opportunity to increase diversity on your board. In other cases, when a team of leaders (such as a board of directors) ages together, with insufficient turnover, it simply fosters group-think and complacency.

None of this needs to be agist. The problem here is not with old leaders, but with leaders who stay later than they should, whether in terms of biological age or just length of tenure.

No, in the end, none of this is about age. It’s about understanding that leadership means knowing that it’s not about you. It’s about the organization, and what’s best for it. And sometimes, what’s best is for you to go.

3 comments so far

  1. […] UPDATE: Look! The estimable Chris McDonald has a similar take! […]

  2. Mark Miller on

    Using the Pope as an example that is useful to business leaders is very smart. As you said, it isn’t necessarily about age, it’s about when is enough enough? It is hard to walk away from something that has meant a lot to you, but in the end, it is about the corporation, not about the person leaving. I hope some of our business leaders who need to leave will learn a lesson from the Pope!

  3. Ruth Arato on

    I agree with the concepts in this post, mainly about good leaders knowing when the best time to step down is. Many times you see leaders step down after a scandal or economic downturn, so it was almost shocking to see Pope Benedict step down for age-related reasons. He understood that the situation was more about himself, and more about the Catholic Church having a leader who would be able to lead strongly. I believe that strong leaders should lead with utilitarianism, in that they should serve to increase the well-being and happiness of everyone, not just themselves. If their tenure is taking a toll on them, due to age or workload, they should take a step back and analyze the situation and figure out what would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest number, the entire company?

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