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Great Leaders Know When to Step Down: A Lesson From the Pope

Today's news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation holds a message: leadership is defined by action and a capacity to get things done.
Pope Benedict XVI during his arrival in the Lisbon airport in 2010.
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One of the many challenges a leader faces is knowing when it is time to move on. 

Generally, this is not a problem for failed leaders, or leaders who aren’t held in esteem. They tend to get pushed out, or they get little hints that it’s time to leave. 

It is, however, a problem for leaders who are successful, loved, and esteemed. Respected and admired leaders--even as they age and have possible decreased capacity--are rarely encouraged to leave.  With no one suggesting that it’s time to go, this type of leader has to rely on his or her own judgment to decide if it is time to wind down.

In academia, many still live in the world of tenure, and are guaranteed their positions for many years.  I marvel not at those professors who hang on, but at those academics who appreciate the need to move on--to search for something new, to make room for younger professors, or because of an awareness of their own decreased capacity.

While I have no data, it seems to me that those who move on the quickest are those who have achieved the most. They are the ones who hold themselves to the highest standards, and hold themselves accountable.

Today’s news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation holds a message for all leaders, especially those pragmatic leaders who realize that leadership is defined by action and a capacity to get things done.  The lesson is simple.  As a leader, your responsibility to your organization, to your cause, and to your vision is realistic self-monitoring. 

You may have been great in your time--and you still may be great--but ask whether you fit the moment.  Is the environment that your organization is operating in now the one that you are most comfortable?  Ask yourself the following questions:

Is my knowledge base static? If you find yourself more and more out of sync with changing technologies, changing markets, changing ideas and concepts, then you may have to seriously consider making room for the younger generation who can keep up.

Is my network expanding?  Leadership is based on your ability to network, make new connections, and find new linkages.  If you find yourself dealing with the same people all the time, then maybe it is time to reconsider your position.

Does the work demand more of you?  This is neither a physical nor intellectual question.  Emotionally, are you less engaged with the daily activities necessary to sustain forward movement?

Do you think others around you can do a better job? Leaders always recognize talent and exceptional people.  Few leaders in their prime feel replaceable.   But if you are struck that others around you can do a better job than you can, then maybe you should let them.

The primary lesson that leaders can learn from Pope Benedict XVI is honest self-reflection.

Leaders need to make an honest examination of what they can and are willing to do.  Few CEOs, few entrepreneurs, few leaders are more committed to their vision or mission than the Holy Father.  If he can recognize the challenges that face the Church and have the awareness that he should make room for others, shouldn’t leaders at least reflect on his example? 

This is not to say that everyone needs to copy his behavior, but certainly everyone should have the responsibility to reflect on whether the time has come to move on.

 

IMAGE: M.Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk/Flickr
Last updated: Feb 11, 2013

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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