Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement today, the first Pope in 600 years to exit the position while still breathing. When I saw that Harvard Business Review had an article about the “forbidden” topic, I thought surely they were going to dig into the scandal that, well, isn’t really all that forbidden given the number of legal depositions and media stories that have been generated. But imagine my surprise when they began digging into the truly verboten topic of over-the-hill executives:
So what’s the answer for leaders who are older, who are sick, who are tired? Is it to step down when you feel like you can no longer do it anymore? Or is there an increased pressure to keep working as long as you can?
I don’t think this is primarily about age. I think it’s really about energy and enthusiasm and a kind of physical, moral, intellectual, and emotional verve — an appetite. It’s something that every leader is responsible for maintaining and feeding.
If it’s reading Keats’ poetry or dancing the tango every other Tuesday night or listening to a great symphony or if it’s being a D.J. once a week — if that is what keeps a pope or a CEO or a president or a missionary fresh and fed and fueled, then by god that is on their plate and part of their responsibility as a leader.
That doesn’t just mean getting on the treadmill for an hour every morning. It means rehabbing and refreshing your heart, your sense of humor, and your recovery. It’s not recovery every eight months; it’s not two weeks in Nantucket. …
Pope Benedict XVI is someone who has probably looked himself in the mirror and looked at his predecessors — no one else has done this — and said, “For me, I need to do this. Because I’m taking an honest look at my physical and mental and spiritual balance sheet, and I don’t have enough assets right now.”
I cannot speak to Ratzinger’s motives for leaving office. It is clear, in general, that the connection between identity and job title is so deep in the West that it’s dangerous. People stay in office long after they should leave. Next time you are at the hospital, look for the number of doddering eighty-something physicians who “simply can’t imagine retirement,” and ponder the relative effectiveness of the continuing medical education they must receive to keep their license.
There is an age past which some jobs ought not be done – and because of hubris many people (mostly men) try to tell themselves that the inevitable march of time isn’t really happening to them. The root cause is fear. We fear the loss of precious identity. On his Facebook page, Nassim Nicholas Taleb digs into this issue by comparing it to ancient Roman society:
The more someone identifies with a profession or an “accomplishment” such as an award, the less human he will be (in the classical sense). In virtue ethics, the only “excellence” worth attaining is that of “being human”, with all what it entails (honor, courage, service, satisfaction of public & private duties, willingness to face death, etc.); “achievements” are reductions and alienations for lower forms of life.
IN ANCIENT ROME this was a privilege reserved for the patrician class. They were able to engage in professional activities without directly identifying with them: to write books, lead armies, farm land, or transact without being a writer, general, farmer, or merchant, but “a man (*vir* rather than *homo*) who” writes, commands, farms or transacts, as a side activity.
TODAY, as humanity got much, much richer, one would have thought that everyone would have access to the privilege. Instead, I only find it in minimum wage earners who just “make a living” and feel forced to separate their identity from their profession. The higher up in the social ladder, the more people derive their identity from their profession and “achievements”.
I have seen more than my share of senior leaders – in position and age – who categorically refuse to discuss the implications of the aging of the Baby Boom generation. They are a huge demographic block – it is a big deal. The fear is intellectually crippling. It really is a shame. Aging need not be so traumatic, not so culturally difficult. As Andy Rooney was fond of saying, it sure beats the alternative. And as we approach, slowly but surely, a changing of the generational guard where leadership is concerned, it would be better if we could approach such a moment with perspective, compassion and wisdom.