Pope’s Resignation and Knowing When to Leave

Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world
today by resigning his post, effective Feb. 28.
Source: The Vatican

Eighty-five-year-old Pope Benedict XVI's resignation today due to poor health not only stunned the world, but also stunned his closest aides, whom Reuters reported were left "incredulous" by the announcement.

The last time a Pope stepped down willingly was when Celestine V did it in the year 1294. So you'd think such a decision—which affects 1.2 billion Catholics around the world—would be carefully mapped out by Vatican officials, including communicators. But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi admitted that even the Pope's inner circle was in the dark about the decision to step down.

But from Pope Benedict's statement, it's clearly poor health that's driving the resignation. "Both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," he stated.

Overstaying one's tenure at the job has tarnished the legacies of many a leader. Media magnates Rupert Murdoch, age 81, of News Corp. and Sumner Redstone, 89, of National Amusements, CBS, Viacom and other properties are two leaders who have been criticized for staying on the job too long.

Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall was determined to serve out his appointment for life, but as his health deteriorated he was forced to retire in 1991. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond's tenure took a similar path, as critics questioned his mental capacity toward the end of his 47-year Senate run.

On the flipside, Microsoft's Bill Gates and GE's Jack Welch are two former leaders who were generally praised for recognizing their companies' need for a change in leadership.

So even though Pope Benedict may have bypassed his communications handlers, perhaps his announcement has more PR upside than downside. An informal scan of comments online following Pope Benedict's announcement shows that while some may be upset with his abrupt resignation, others admire him for having the wherewithal and courage to know when it's time to quit. "I can name several of our politicians who should follow his example for similar reasons," stated one comment online.

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