Pontificating on Benedict XVI’s resignation


When is comes to caused-based organisations there are probably none bigger than the Roman Catholic Church. It was understandable therefore that Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement to resign grabbed considerable run time in all forms of media. What did surprise me though was how much of this media attention was focused on the “management lessons” that supposedly can be drawn from this occasion.

The commentaries I have read, at least, seem to focus on two themes – knowing when to quit in a leadership role and extolling the virtues of having a well-oiled succession planning process. But despite the thousands of words that have been written, it seems a couple of key points in this case have been overlooked.

Firstly, with regard to the leadership capacity issue. I join the chorus welcoming Benedict XVI’s self-assessment that he is no longer capable of fulfilling his duties. This is a courageous decision and in his case he also has the weight of history against him. However, one point that seems to have been overlooked is that in resigning he is leaving a role, he is not leaving the cause! He is not leaving the organisation, he is not resigning from being a priest. Most Leaders faced with Benedict XV’s dilemma in reality do not have the same parachute, in many ways making their call personally far more difficult and probably a major reason why they go beyond the point where they are fully effective. In the light of this perhaps the real lesson here is:
“The transition of a leader out of a role for which they have lost the appetite to continue in can be facilitated if a realistic and dignified option to remain in the organisation in another capacity is presented.”

The other issue that has experts salivating is the great PR this announcement has delivered for Succession Planning. But once again we need to be a little circumspect here.

Sure the Catholic Church probably has the most written about succession process in history and it has some great aspects – but as a template for other cause-based organisations it is lacking. This is because it has built into the process a period known as “sede vacante” which literally means empty seat. During this period Papal power is not delegated and all decisions are placed on hold. It also formally creates a climate for lobbying and behind the scenes maneuvering as well as creating an opportunity for external forces to become involved in the decision making (e.g. I understand Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet is at 7/2 if you are quick). Hardly best practice for other cause-based organisations.

Do we have a case here were the Vatican could maybe learning from current succession planning thinking? Surely a strategy that can circumvent the sede vacante is worth considering. Maybe when the College of Cardinals meet in a few weeks’ time they too could break with tradition and select a new Pontiff as well as a Deputy Pope? What are your thoughts?

Author: Chris Gandy, Director, Cause and Effective.

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B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

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