Some leadership lessons emerged, at least for me, from the Pope’s announcement he was resigning from this high and sacred office. This is a lifetime office, as we know from its history, but Pope Benedict XVI’s took the route that was last taken 600 years ago (actually 598) by Gregory XII in 1415. While I do not know all the details of Benedict’s resignation (and we probably can never know all the details), I believe there are some leadership lessons embedded in this decision.
The Pope says he is resigning for health reasons and fatigue: This is a lesson for all of us. We should pay attention to our bodies and know when it is time to leave our current assignments. When our energy begins to fail, as the Pope noted, then we are not able to give our best thinking and abilities to the assignment at hand. All humans wind down. Sensing and acknowledging that our time is coming to an end is a high degree of emotional intelligence. Those who remain robust and vibrant into their 90s who we celebrate and tout in the media are not the norm. And if you don’t believe that is the case, you haven’t visited a nursing home in awhile.
The wisdom of knowing it is time to resign: I’ve witnessed it and so have others when a person hangs on to a leadership role when they really should step aside. Pope Benedict XVI is demonstrating wisdom in knowing he can no longer oversee the duties of the office. How many times have we watched a leader hang on to the office without forethought of its demands? There is wisdom in this act by knowing when one is no longer able to function adequately in the role assigned to them in a more youthful moment.
The third session for me has to do with the courage: It’s been 598 years since the last Pope resigned. That’s a long tenure of tradition. And the length of tradition can cause us to make unwise decisions….to preserve the office and not the institution. The Pope understands he is not the person to lead the 1 billion member Catholic church forward, so is courageous enough (and humble enough) to know that the time is right for him to step down.
Finally, the last leadership lesson is one of deep concern for the institution: It is easy to place one’s role as a leader above the mission and future of the organization. An effective leader understands when they are no longer able to guide the institution forward in dealing with issues and complexities of the assignment. Often, we know of those who stay well after their time is ended technically, but continue to push on as if nothing is wrong. We call them lame duck…holding a position but ineffectual in doing anything productive. The phrase “lame duck” has its origins, however, from the London stock exchange of 1771 where a person who is “lame duck” cannot pay their debt. In a sense, the Pope and leaders who stay past their ability to perform the assignment are no longer able to pay the debt for the demands of the job. There is wisdom and courage that reminds a person when it is best to leave for the sake of the institution than to become a debtor where staying diminishes the legacy and hamstrings the ability of the organization to function effectively (hamstring which by the way means” to render useless”).
I admire Pope Benedict XVI as a leader in this final act. He has demonstrated for us what must go into every leadership decision when the transfer of power comes. A leader does not have to be 85 to make that decision. It may happen when they are 65, 70, or 55. Many signs will start to appear for a leader and I believe the emotionally intelligent will make the right decision even though it does not seem the best from those looking in from the outside.
Blessings to you Pope Benedict XVI and all those wise leaders who follow your example.