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The Pope Shows That Sometimes Leadership is Addition by Subtraction

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As I write this, it’s the day after Pope Benedict XVI announced that he intends to resign the papacy at the end of this month. Considering that the last time a pope resigned was 600 years ago, his announcement qualifies as a pretty big story.

There’s been a lot of reporting and commentary about the impact of Benedict’s resignation. For example, The New York Times offers a nice analysis of the issues at hand in its article, Successor to Benedict Will Lead a Church at the Crossroads. My friend and colleague, John Baldoni, was very quick off the mark earlier today with a post for Forbes that offered three questions inspired by the Pope’s announcement that leaders should ask themselves.

I’ve read a lot of interesting things about the Pope and the Catholic Church today, but the one that really stood out for me was a letter to the editor of the New York Times from Daniel C. Maguire, a professor of moral theology at Marquette University. He opens the letter with these two sentences:

“The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI may be the most influential act of his papacy. It opens a window of opportunity for serious reform, starting with the papacy, in a church roiled in multiple crises.”

Without going into all of the challenges facing the Church and whether or not Pope Benedict was effective in addressing them, I respect his decision to resign. At age 85 and in declining health, he recognized that he was not up to the job and went against centuries of tradition by not hanging on to his job until he died. Apparently, the health of the organization he’s led is more important to him than being the leader of that organization.

While he didn’t put it this way in his announcement, with his resignation the Pope is creating the opportunity for addition by subtraction. That’s a pretty unusual move for a leader in a position of great power. Think about it, how many CEO’s or politicians have you seen hang onto their jobs when they were clearly way past their “sell by” date? I can come up with half a dozen in less than six seconds.

What’s your take on the Pope’s resignation? Good move or bad? What factors should leaders consider as they assess whether or not it’s time to move on?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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