Pope Benedict XVI and the Leadership Issue No One Wants to Talk About

Harvard Business Review

An edited interview with Harvard Business School professor and leadership historian Nancy F. Koehn.

Pope Benedict XVI just resigned, citing age and poor health. Aside from the whole "no pope has resigned in the past 600 years" thing, why is this important in the grand scheme of how we understand work and leadership? ...

Lesson number one is about the importance of endurance and physical stamina, and the ability to keep one's self and one's energy at a high, healthy level on a very consistent basis. It's amazing how hard that is — and it isn't specific to Pope Benedict XVI. This is about everyone else as well, and we don't talk about it very much. Except when the president of the United States' annual physical comes out, we don't talk about how physically, mentally, and emotionally strong a leader has to be to sit at these tables that have so much on them.

Lesson number two is more about how extraordinarily difficult effective leadership is. The pope stepping down for health reasons is something we all pay attention to because he's the pope and he's a leader for well over a billion people. His job is hard. It's not hard just because there's abuse and scandal within the organization.

At one level this resignation feels really distant, and at other, when you really peel it down, it's not. It's about how much is on leaders' plates and how much that's not going to change. Quite the opposite: he's stepping down because it's not like it's going to get better tomorrow.

So what's the answer for leaders who are older, who are sick, who are tired? Is it to step down when you feel like you can no longer do it anymore? Or is there an increased pressure to keep working as long as you can?

I don't think this is primarily about age. I think it's really about energy and enthusiasm and a kind of physical, moral, intellectual, and emotional verve — an appetite. It's something that every leader is responsible for maintaining and feeding.

If it's reading Keats' poetry or dancing the tango every other Tuesday night or listening to a great symphony or if it's being a D.J. once a week — if that is what keeps a pope or a CEO or a president or a missionary fresh and fed and fueled, then by god that is on their plate and part of their responsibility as a leader.

That doesn't just mean getting on the treadmill for an hour every morning. It means rehabbing and refreshing your heart, your sense of humor, and your recovery. It's not recovery every eight months; it's not two weeks in Nantucket. ...

Pope Benedict XVI is someone who has probably looked himself in the mirror and looked at his predecessors — no one else has done this — and said, "For me, I need to do this. Because I'm taking an honest look at my physical and mental and spiritual balance sheet, and I don't have enough assets right now."

In some ways, it's an act of great responsibility. Of really responding to his spiritual duty.

Backing up a bit, why don't we talk about how hard it is to be a good leader?

Because we want to believe, on some very romantic level, that leaders are born. That they're superhuman. That they're cut from special cloth, that they've descended from Mount Olympus to help all of us. We want to believe that because it gets us excited about signing up to work with them. It kindles our hope that people with power have a sense of great responsibility and have answers that we don't see.

There are good things about this inclination, this cognitive dissonance. But it's not real.

There's something equally valuable, equally inspirational about taking that page of the textbook out — "leaders are born and they're special" — and instead reading the page that says "leaders are made as much as they're born, maybe more so, and that they're made in unexpected ways. And that they recognize how human they really are." That is what allows us to relate to them, follow them, and pick up their gauntlet. And it also shows us what people are capable of in terms of leading from the better angels of their nature. ...

There are very few "positions for life" left — the pope, tenured professors, and U.S. Supreme Court justices seem to be the holdouts. Does his decision further change the "have one job until you retire or die" narrative?

It does change it. If you think about something like tenure, for example, there are a lot of forces pressing against the idea of lifelong job security. At many institutions, they're chipping away at the original rationale behind tenure — which is giving people who write and teach the freedom to say what they need to say.

There are these new pressures on institutions and the people who lead them that start to suggest new paradigms and structures being built in the wake of things like the destruction of lifelong jobs. I suspect we'll see some more of this around the Supreme Court over the next 10 years, or at least debate over it.

And there's going to be debate now about the pope and how he's chosen. And we have to ask ourselves: Can we afford, in the broad sense, to give people a position for life when it appears that there is so much intensifying turbulence and change everywhere? We're talking about turbulence as the new normal and, really, whether any job or position can be granted for life within all that.

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