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Pope shows he knows when to leave

Ethical leadership is also about timing.

(Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images)

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 be carried out.

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 resistant 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 ageist. The problem here is not with old leaders, but with leaders who stay on longer than they should, whether in terms of biological age or just length of tenure.

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.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.