The Pope (Retd) is to spend the rest of his days quietly in the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae nunnery (sans nuns). It may be that a scandal has yet to emerge, which would explain a little better why this pope really decided to retire, the first to do so in 600 years. But if he has genuinely decided to throw in the towel on grounds of ill-health, he may have just performed his most important act as a global leadership role model. His exit contains valuable insight for those in any sacred or secular profession, particularly where a role has become vocational.
It seems that as work takes over ever more of our lives, we have begun to ache for meaning. The rise in workplace spirituality is a response to this ache, as are the increasing numbers of management development interventions concerning vision, values and purpose. Cynically, these can be used to indicate an organisational requirement for loyalty beyond the call of duty, a sort of compulsory organisational citizenship in a 24×7 culture. But when such initiatives are employee-led, they more commonly spring from the very human yearning for a career not to have been labour in vain. And it is ordinarily a wholly positive thing for a job to be elevated to the status of a vocation by being imbued with meaning, because it helps a person to remain motivated when things are tough.
Some roles have traditionally been viewed as vocational – clergy, doctors, nurses, teachers, public servants. They have tended not to pay as well as other jobs, but society has deemed them as more worthy (the K or the ‘k’s again). And perhaps these sorts of jobs need to be explicitly vocational, as those doing them can expect hard times, and need to have the personal resources ready to cope. In addition to the notion of vocation, in theology there is a term called kenosis, which describes the ‘self-emptying’ of a person so they become more receptive to God’s will. There is also the tradition of carrying burdens for others, and this heady mix can lead to extraordinary sacrifice from religious people, wherever they work. Many secular traditions also encourage the ethic of service, and in any context it can be taken to extremes. HBR (July-Aug 1999) contains a very useful paper called Toxic Handlers, about those people at work who absorb cultural angst for the good of the organisational as a whole. We all know people who do this, at no small cost to themselves, and they serve a vital organisational function.
But in some cases, this sense of purpose has a much darker side. If vocation, kenosis, or toxic handling themselves become idols, or more to do with ego than service, a person will often lose all perspective, persisting in their ‘calling’ beyond all reason or use. Such martyrs are hard to unseat, once they feel they are on a mission, and their increasing insularity renders their decision-making dangerous at best. And when the vagaries of being senior start to bite, it is understandable that so many leaders become filled with missionary zeal. They collect around them fellow believers, encouraging a culture of confirmatory bias, and start to believe their own narrative. In this light, quarrels over executive pay seem entirely reasonable – how could you ever pay such demigods enough? And slowly the organisation re-shapes itself to do the leader’s will, rather than the job the organisation was established to do. Depending on the strength of the leader, and the organisation they lead, this process can be fairly modest, or frighteningly far-reaching in its scope. Sometimes whole companies collapse, like Enron, drunk with a sense of being on the side of the angels, and sometimes it is the leader who collapses, with burnout. In neither case is the organisation well-served.
But imagine how hard it is to walk away. From the excitement, the glory, the trappings, the fans. And, in the Pope’s case, throw into this mix the tradition that a calling is for life. Ignoring for the time being the particular complication of papal infallibility, the whole concept of the religious retiring is rather novel. Even in the Church of England it was only established in law in the 1970s, because you can’t exactly switch God off once he has picked you out for ordination.
So the Pope has done something really very extraordinary. Standing down when not required to do so calls for high levels of personal awareness, humility, and courage. Too few go before they should. Rowan Williams and the Pope both went before they had to – albeit for different reasons. Perhaps some of our secular leaders should ask themselves whether they are really the leader their organisation needs, and follow the example set by their ecclesiastical peers.