At one point or other, all organizations and their leaders face the challenge of adapting to a changed environment. The Catholic Church is no different. Pope Benedict’s decision this week to retire came as a surprise to the world, as well as a contradiction to centuries of tradition of life-long service in the post.
Yet Benedict’s planned abdication—depending on his post-resignation behavior and the reactions of Catholics—has the potential to provide transforming leadership. A few days ago, a headline in The Washington Post read “Pope Benedict’s abdication may simply be the act of a conscientious manager.” And so it seems to be. But I paused over the word simply.
The headline implied (correctly) that the Pope’s decision does not appear to be an effort to hide a terminal illness, or the result of a Vatican coup, or the consequence of a yet-to-be revealed scandal. And, thus, simply. But not, I note, simple.
Giving up power is not a simple or easy decision. A former graduate professor of mine at the University of Kansas frequently trained corporate executives, and one of the training simulations that he used was designed to bestow power (albeit the temporary power associated with roleplaying) on some participants while depriving others of it. A key decision point in the simulation was whether or not those who had been given power would voluntarily relinquish it. After administering the exercise in a variety of organizations over several years, the professor told me that, to date, not a single participant had voluntarily given up power.
By stepping aside, Benedict XVI is doing something that is relatively rare and hardly easy. (Note the current reports, for example, that he plans to continue living in the Vatican.) His blunt action creates rather than eliminates possibilities and uncertainties.
Perhaps Benedict’s resignation will prompt other elderly leaders–within the Roman Catholic Church and also within other organizations–to consider stepping aside. Perhaps it will open the door to a new pontiff who can help the church respond to the modern age’s stronger call for financial transparency, accountability for sexual abuse, and updated roles for clergy and laity.
But let’s hope the lesson the Catholic Church takes from this moment it is not that the church necessarily needs younger popes—energy and ability are more important factors than age, after all—but that it needs shorter papacies. The best thing that could come of Benedict’s resignation would be if it began a tradition of popes who step aside.
One of the conclusions I have reached in my studies is that keeping an organization up to date requires frequent changes in leadership. This seems to be true whether we are talking about acknowledging past mistakes or embracing new opportunities. Leaders do not grow evil with time. They do not show less interest in improvements. But, just as they have a hard time letting go of power, they have a hard time letting go of the past.
Planned turnover of senior leadership is the best way for organizations to carefully monitor, and consider adapting to, changing circumstances. So as the Catholic Church searches for ways to merge its past with the present, the life-long papacy is one tradition that it would do well to give up. Popes should announce in advance that they will abdicate after six years, do their best to meet the problems that the organization faces, and then step aside to let someone else stand on the pinnacle—and survey the situation with a fresh set of eyes.
Lamar Reinsch is a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, as well as the academic director of the school’s Executive Master’s in Leadership.