Letting Go with Dignity

In recent weeks, two leaders have captured headlines by doing something usually thought of as unthinkable for someone in their position: Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands abdicated the throne and – also acting on historic precedence, but a much older on – Pope Benedict XVI resigned.

Although the Catholic church is facing considerable turbulence and the lingering whiff in the aisles is as much potential scandal as incense, there is no current indication that the resignation was either forced or ‘timely’. Nor has Queen Beatrix been a stranger to public criticism and scrutiny, and responded publicly to an extent that the British might find unusual compared to our own monarch. (Surprisingly un-English, the Dutch, as we’ve commented before.)

Although these are departures from office rather than ‘this mortal coil’, another Shakespeare quote – from the Scottish play – sprang to mind:

Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.

In their different ways, Queen Beatrix and Pope Benedict XVI were able to discern the difference between the person and the office and that the continuing importance of the latter did not depend on the former continuing to execute it.

In the case of Queen Beatrix, this was expressed very directly in her resignation speech:

I do not abdicate, therefore, because the task has become an onerous one, but because I am convinced the responsibility for our country should now be placed in the hands of a new generation.

Pope Benedict’s own resignation announcement took a slightly different line: recognising that the task is onerous and that the human being undertaking no longer felt equal to its demands:

[…] in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Departures are undoubtedly difficult, for both the leader and the lead. But as Gretchen Gavett commented at the HBR blog, there is cause for celebration (I hesitate to use the word ‘praise’ in an article about a Pope) in the reminder of the humanity of the holder of the office. While a sense of duty is an admirable trait – and not just in leaders – focussing on the leader rather than the leading that they perform is perhaps to misplace the most appropriate emphasis. It’s vitally important that the leadership is provided, but that is not saying the same thing as ‘the leader must continue’.

As Gavett writes:

There’s something equally valuable, equally inspirational about taking that page of the textbook out — “leaders are born and they’re special” — and instead reading the page that says “leaders are made as much as they’re born, maybe more so, and that they’re made in unexpected ways. And that they recognize how human they really are.” That is what allows us to relate to them, follow them, and pick up their gauntlet. And it also shows us what people are capable of in terms of leading from the better angels of their nature. …”

I also remembered an Independent article by Sarah Sands about Gordon Brown’s departure from Downing Street (admittedly after losing a General Election, although in fairness we might point out that all parties lost the same election), which included the following passage:

The Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who wrote Oration on the Dignity of Man, equated dignity with human rational achievement, which elevated man to the status of angels.

But to a modern sensibility, there is dignity in the recognition of personal fallibility. Gordon Brown has struck a rich seam in mining the humour of self-knowledge. His visit to Adam Smith College in Fife later in the week was wreathed in jokes about his loss of title and his poor social skills. The students loved him all the more for it. His reputation is being repaired by the second.”

Recognising the true demands of a role and that the time has come for another to fulfil them more completely than ourselves dignifies both the individual – by rejecting the temptation to continue vaingloriously – and the office. It is also another way to express a quotation that has been cited in this blog before, but should serve as an important reminder both to current leaders and to those than have over-invested in the role holder to the potential detriment of the role:

Leaders should encourage the next generation not just to follow, but to overtake.”

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