Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Pope’s resignation shows how it’s done: five lessons for career transition

Published 12 February 2013 12:04, Updated 10 April 2013 07:40

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Pope’s resignation shows how it’s done: five lessons for career transition

Even “jobs for life” come with a time limit these days. Pope Benedict has decided it’s time to step down from his church’s top job on earth. Photo: AFP

Considering that many chief executives subscribe to the doctrine of divine right and believe themselves to be infallible, it is fitting that the shock abdication of Pope Benedict XVI should provide some salient lessons in “career transition”.

Here are five heaven-sent teachings to be taken from Benedict’s resignation:

1. RESIGN WITH GRACE

Anyone contemplating a similar move would do well to note the elegant statement by Benedict in which he set forth his reasons for stepping down. There was no recourse to devilish PR spin and the usual bland references to resigning for “personal reasons” or to “pursue other interests”.

No statement has ever been released to the ASX that explains a chief executive or chairman’s resignation with such grace and style, and more’s the pity.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” Benedict announced. “I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me … and I ask pardon for all my defects.”

2. KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO WALK AWAY

The adage that familiarity breeds contempt takes on new meaning in the age of social media and instant everything: forever is a very long time and there is little patience for long tenures.

Even “jobs for life” come with a time limit these days. Permanent secretaries are no longer permanent and prime ministers who consider themselves God’s gift are not only destined to be turfed out of the Lodge by angry voters, but may very well lose their seats as well.

The era of long-standing (or sitting) chairmen and chief executives is coming to a close. Corporate leaders may find that they will have more fruitful tenures and enduring legacies if they view their time in authority as finite rather than believing they have forever to implement their agendas.

3. THE BEST LEADERS HAVE SELF-AWARENESS

It takes great reserves of self-awareness – and courage – to know when your time is up.

These attributes do not simply kick in when it’s time to contemplate one’s usefulness in office. A leader with self-awareness, courage, empathy and purpose will leave a powerful and enduring mark on their organisations – and leave with dignity – when the time comes to go.

“In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes … in order to govern … both strength of mind and body are necessary,” 85-year-old Benedict noted in his statement of resignation. “I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Knowing when it is time to go – recognising your weaknesses and limitations – is as important as the time spent with an organisation.

4. BE RELEVANT

Organisations change and times change. When the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came to the papal throne in 2005 – succeeding the hugely popular John Paul II – he did so with a conservative agenda to defend and strengthen Roman Catholic orthodoxy and the church’s traditional values.

Institutionally and theologically, the church is where Benedict wants it to be. But many issues, which have simmered during his reign, are certain to intensify in the years ahead: sexual abuse of children by priests, the ordination of women, marriage for priests, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

The Catholic Church is unlikely to yield on these issues, but it’s almost certain that the church at the end of Benedict’s successor’s reign will be a vastly different one. Benedict will know that he is not the leader to steer the church through a society that has changed immeasurably during the eight years of his reign, let alone since 1927, the year of his birth.

5. HAVE A POST-RETIREMENT PLAN

Benedict is the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, so there is no useful precedent to determine protocols or roles for a retired pontiff. Nonetheless, Benedict has said that he will use his retirement to pray. That may not be everyone’s cup of holy water, but having a firm plan will help ease the transition.

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