Pope Benedict and the problem of leadership

When Pope Benedict XVI shockingly announced his impending retirement this week, it was a sign that the contemporary world's relentless reinvention of leadership has reached into even our oldest institutions.

The Catholic Church's official list of popes, the Annuario Pontificio, names 265 popes (excluding some Antipopes), stretching back two millennia to St. Peter himself. In all that time, just four have resigned. And Benedict is the first to do so in six centuries.


Why him, and why now? The immediate answer is that Pope Benedict realized that at 85 he is too old to carry out his duties; "strength of mind and body," he says, "has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me." But Pope Benedict is not the first old, or sick, or frail pontiff. Why did he feel the need to be the first pope since 1415 to resign?

A clue comes from another part of Pope Benedict's resignation announcement: "Today's world," he says, is "subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith."

"Today's world" and its questions, Pope Benedict has come to understand, have scant patience for slow or tired leaders. Once upon a time, leaders had it easier. For thousands of years, leaders enjoyed, and jealously guarded, a near monopoly on three things critical to sound leadership: strategic information, the decision-making process itself, and the means to disseminate their ideas, insights and initiatives.

But today Google, Facebook and Twitter mean that any 16-year-old in Aracaju, Abidjan or Annapolis can access the same information, news and ideas as Pope Benedict can. And that teenager can broadcast his or her ideas out to the world about as easily as the pope. In December, the pope established the first pontifical Twitter account. Two months in, he has 1.5 million followers — impressive, but fewer than one-tenth as many as Oprah Winfrey, and less than one-twentieth as many as Justin Bieber. The modern world, in short, has destroyed traditional leadership's longstanding competitive advantage: privileged access to information and communication.

And that, paradoxically, opens up a new opportunity to see what leadership is really about.

Leadership has always been, first and foremost, about asking and answering questions — questions about the group's identity, situation and goals, and questions about the often-fragile links between the group and its members. But it hasn't always been easy to see how important questions are to leadership.

Traditionally, leaders have asked their questions in private, while publicly sharing and disseminating only their authoritative answers, whether written on clay tablets, parchment, or stone tablets. The job of the people in traditional organizations was not to ask but to listen and obey. Challenging that passive role was perilous. In the Old Testament, for instance, Korah and other concerned Israelites challenge Moses with two simple but earth-shaking questions: "Why do you lift up yourself above the people? Aren't we all holy in the eyes of the Lord?" (Numbers 16). Korah gets a swift, decisive answer: The earth opens up and swallows him and his companions. Message: Don't question Moses. Yet 25 or so centuries later, when Martin Luther asked essentially the same questions of the Catholic Church, it proved unable to silence him, and the result was the Protestant Reformation, a vast disordering of Christian faith, but also a vast unleashing of creative spiritual energy.

Back to today. Pope Benedict is resigning not because he is frail but because the modern world has brought the leader's questions out from the shadows. We can all take at least a small stab at leadership now, with a thousand opinions, a thousand ideas about the critical problems facing us, a thousand ways to share them instantly — and a wrenching impatience with slow leadership.

"How are we doing?" is a question that every business, every nonprofit, every school is now forced to confront every day, like it or not, if it wishes to survive in a fast-paced, competitive environment. It is a question that even the Catholic Church must confront, as it seeks to preserve the vitality of ancient moral teachings amid the swirling political, cultural and demographic currents of the 21st century.

The next pope may be as old as Pope Benedict, or he may be younger. He may be another European, or he may, at last, be an African or Latin American Catholic. But one thing we know for sure: The next pope, like all modern leaders, will ask countless questions about his organization and its place in the world — and he'll be plunged, like it or not, into increasingly public debates about the best answers to those questions. Today, more than ever, all Catholics — and indeed, all those who care about the health and vitality of one of our world's oldest and most enduring institutions — can be the rock on which the Church continues to be rebuilt.

Michael Harvey, an associate professor at Washington College, teaches courses in organizational behavior and leadership. His email is