Knowing When To Call It Quits

Monday morning, the world was shocked to hear the news that Pope Benedict XVI was planning to resign. Media outlets were quick to point out that no Pope had resigned for almost 600 years making this a highly unusual and, for some, suspicious turn of events. While there may be more to the story, we do know that the Vatican’s reason for the resignation is the Pope’s advanced age and frail health.

We also know that the Pope has absolute power. While even the most powerful CEO needs to answer to a board of directors or shareholders, the Pope answers only to God. Whatever, the rest of the story may be, the Pope only steps down if the Pope wants to step down. And perhaps there is nothing else to the story. Perhaps he truly felt that his health and age were keeping him from being able to serve his position in the best way possible.

It is difficult for many of us to envision having absolute power and then giving it up voluntarily. This is the reason most western democracies have things like term limits and mandatory elections.

Stepping away from the papacy voluntarily should be seen as a somewhat noble and humble act. It is the recognition that somebody else could better lead the Catholic Church at this time.

There are lessons we can take from this act that apply to our own workplaces. While most of us presumably do not have anything approaching absolute power in our jobs, we are sometimes able to continue doing a job or even simply a small job function, longer than we should.

For example, my friend June, leads a sales team selling cars. June is generally very good at selling cars to most people but, for whatever reason, she does not do well selling to older women. Something about her sales pitch or her demeanor acts as a serious deterrent to women of a certain age.

For years, June, as the leader of the team, would always take the customers who seemed like they would be buying the most expensive cars, regardless of who they were. As a consequence, the car dealership lost potential sales as some of these potential customers were older women who did not respond to June’s sales techniques. Overall June’s team’s performance was good enough that her supervisors never identified or noted June’s blind spot.

Eventually however, June started to recognize her own shortcomings. As an experiment, she started telling another salesman, Matt, to sell to the older women who came into the dealership regardless of how much the women looked like they might spend on a new car. Baby-faced Matt made the women think of their own sons and he was able to charm many of them into cars they might not have bought from June. Overall, the team’s sales went up and June’s statistics looked even better because she was able to spend all of her time on other customers.

In the long run, it will likely be best for you and your organization for you to step back and think strategically about how to match the needs of your organization to your own strengths. If these things are no longer a match, it might be best to make like Pope Benedict and step out!

How is your horizon appearing today?


  1. To a point, I agree with your comments above, however, the cynic in me believes that there is something suspicious behind Pope Benedict’s resignation. There have been too many awful events in the catholic church’s history to believe otherwise.

    On a positive note though, I am reminded of the principles of transformational leadership and authentic, situational leadership, whereby a really good effective leader, allows members of the team to go beyond his/her scope (the leader) and shine themselves. This is about having the humility and emotional intelligence to recognise personal limitations and for the good of the team, to allow and encourage someone else to take over.

    1. Thank you Elaine for your insights on this issue. I agree it is very difficult to figure out another person’s motives. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out one’s own motives.

      Your points on leadership are very much to the point. Leadership really does need to be about allowing those around one to make the most of their potential.

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