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The Resignation of the Pope: Knowing When It's Time to Take a Different Role

03/14/2013 11:48 am ET | Updated May 14, 2013

I just celebrated my birthday: the fête of a 32-year-old man trapped in a 55-year-old body. While not officially considered 'older' in our society, my 'golden' years are rapidly approaching. And while I am heartened by the number of older individuals remaining in the workforce (fueled in equal parts by a recession that has decimated retirement plans, better health, and a growing realization that retirement is not what many of us aspire to, particularly if we have enjoyed being actively engaged in the building of societal fabric), I am also keenly aware that we all come to a point in our careers when we must ask ourselves an important question: Is it time?

Older individuals in the workforce bring ample experience, skill, and insight to their work. But for many aging also represents a period of decreasing physical competence, a lessening alignment with and comprehension of current trends and technology, and greater comfort with the status quo (which they helped create) than with change. We must make way for younger workers with new approaches to old problems. But if all of our older workers act on the desire to slow down and enjoy the deserved fruits of their many years of labor, how do we feel the gap in talent and experience?

Facing and planning for the future hinges on understanding and embracing current and evolving trends in technology, demographics, aspiration, and need; and it also requires a certain amount of impetuousness. This is particularly true in leadership because effective leadership rests in clearly understanding what today's trends are and on fully envisioning the resulting future... as we move to prepare for it.

And this is why we should applaud the pope, the CEO of the Catholic Church, with a level of authority few leaders of nations, much less corporations or academia, enjoy, for his decision. In resigning, and bucking an eons long tradition, the pope appears to be calling for sensible, unselfish, and future-oriented leadership.

Notwithstanding the many controversies surrounding the Vatican, Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict emphasized that he was stepping down because he felt his waning mental and physical powers made him less suited to the job at hand. "In these last months," he shared, "I have felt that my strength had diminished." He stressed that his decision, though viewed as radical by some, was "for the good of the church." And in doing so he recognized what many do not... that responsible and effective leadership requires, in addition to experience, a high level of energy, perspective, focus, mental prowess, and future orientation.

In business, in athletics, in universities, in politics and government, we have seen too many examples to the contrary... leaders who stayed too long.

But what is the alternative? What about that extensive experience and insight we talked about? Shouldn't society benefit from this accumulation of wisdom?

To do so we must recognize that there is a time for everything ... that when our powers or attention wane, we should chose to move from a 'Command and Control' to a 'Foster and Support' role. From commander to mentor.

Not a sudden disappearance like those we witness in the world of magic... but a thoughtful change in role, because our society needs the accumulated wisdom and experience of older leaders but also the energy, focus, and future-orientation of younger, emerging leaders. A Karate Kid approach to leadership, if you will.

As sitting leaders, we should hardwire these opportunities into our respective organizational structures, but insecurities cloud our judgment and result in us 'digging in' as opposed to 'reaching out'.

"I know it needs changing," older leaders say, "but do it after I'm gone."

Or, "But that's the way we've always done it."

Or worse, "Let them wait their turn."

All bad choices, for then we are obstacles to progress. Remember, the future belongs to others.

Disenfranchising younger leaders or delaying their development until we are gone (and we all will be gone someday) ensures that the next generation does not benefit from our wisdom and experience... and is condemned to repeat the same mistakes (in addition to many new ones).

Is it time? It is the hardest question for an aging leader to face.

Let us vigorously applaud the decision of Benedict XVI... for it takes keen insight, great concern for the future, and determined courage to know when we must step aside from daily command and embrace a supporting role.

Our future generations will thank us.