Skip to main content

From pope to politician, when do you know it's time to go?

By Jill Martin Wrenn, CNN
updated 10:17 AM EST, Thu February 14, 2013
  • Benedict XVI is the first pope to retire in nearly 600 years; he says age is a factor
  • Former New York Gov. George Pataki retired after three terms and didn't seek a fourth
  • Pataki: "I was never going to let my public title become my personal identity"
  • Experts say succession plans are key to smooth transitions and a positive legacy

(CNN) -- Choosing to step down from a top job can be an extraordinary decision, whether the person is a pontiff or a politician. But George Pataki, former governor of New York, says making the switch from public figure to John Q. Public wasn't difficult for him.

"I made up my mind that I was never going to let my public title become my personal identity," he says. He embraced what he calls a sense of normalcy after he left office, going to movies and basketball games.

A year or two after he left office, Pataki went to Madison Square Garden with a group of friends to see the Knicks play. And he wanted to stand in line to get himself a hot dog -- something elected officials tend not to do.

"I loved it," he says. Even though fellow fans recognized him and offered to let him jump the queue, Pataki waited in line for his hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut. "I felt really good about the fact that it was just comfortable for me to be on line with the rest," he says.

Pope's brother: Aging process is hard
Pope resigning: What it means

Pataki decided in the middle of his third term in office that he would not seek a fourth term. He left office in 2006, after 12 years as governor.

Pope's resignation a new angle to a tough news beat

"I had no doubts that this was the right decision for me, for my family, for the team that had worked so hard with me, and for the state," he says.

Pataki now practices law at Chadbourne & Parke in New York, where he focuses on energy and environmental issues. He has enjoyed his return to the private sector. "The transition for me was really not that difficult, to be perfectly honest," says Pataki. "But it was time."

Deciding when it's time to leave can be tough, especially when top jobs are hard to find. In the corporate world, stepping down from a leadership role by choice is uncommon.

"It's almost unheard of," says Patricia Cook, CEO of the executive search firm Cook & Company. "It's a very unusual event."

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. "Like" us on Facebook and have your say! Get the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

Experts in the business world wonder why an executive would relinquish a leadership role. Cook says she can't think of an instance when a CEO stepped down because he or she didn't feel up to the job. But health concerns can change the game.

Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world Monday when he announced he would resign at the end of this month. He cited his age and his deteriorating strength in his statement: "I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." A Vatican spokesman said on Tuesday that Benedict is not suffering from a specific ailment.

"I was very surprised," says David Perry, associate professor of history at Dominican University. Even so, Perry knew resignation was possible -- even for a pope. "From my perspective as a medievalist, it's not surprising that popes can resign," he says. Papal law makes clear that pontiffs can give up their roles.

But that hasn't happened in nearly 600 years. Whatever Benedict's motivation for choosing to step down now, experts say that his legacy could depend on whether there will be an orderly succession.

Career expert Nicole Williams stresses the importance of a clean exit in the corporate arena. "Departing is what ends up being a very monumental and usually public occasion," she says.

Regardless of an employee's years of loyalty and service, the final stretch is often what defines the person. "What they remember is you leaving," says Williams. "You're going to want to be remembered by this departure, so you want to control it versus it controlling you."

Geoff Hoffmann took over as chief executive officer of the search firm DHR International from his father. As someone who recently went through the transition process, and who advises companies on their plans, he says a leadership plan is the key to success.

Opinion: Echoes of past in pope's resignation

"One of the most important duties of a CEO is to make sure that the succession plan is in place, really from Day One," he says. "Some of the best-run companies are really thoughtful with their succession planning."

Health and circumstance can contribute to a person's decision to step down from a job in any field.

If a leader doesn't feel up to the task, experts say retirement makes sense. "If we look at the corporate world, it really is about: Can the CEO execute the job at the level it needs to be done?" says Susan Battley, founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting.

From mental sharpness to memory, leaders need finely tuned skills to be at the top of their game. "Effective leadership is all about being able to execute brilliantly," says Battley. Whether the person is in charge of a Fortune 500 company, or the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, leadership is exhausting.

Since leaving office, Pataki and his wife spend as much time as they can at their farm in the Adirondack Mountains. He's still playing sports, like basketball, and watching them; he calls himself a long-suffering Jets fan. And he still appears on the political stage. He says: "I do want to try to help out with advancing policies that are right for the future of the country."

As for the pope, a Vatican spokesman says he will likely retire to a monastery, where he will spend his time focused on prayer and reflection.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
Not a jot of doctrine has changed in the year since Francis became Pope. But there's more than one way to measure his impact. Just ask some of the faithful in the country's most Catholic city.
updated 10:01 AM EST, Sat February 22, 2014
Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in a ceremony in the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica -- the first such appointments since he was elected pontiff last March.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
"The spring evening in which Pope Francis was elected is an apt symbol of the beginning of his papacy and the years that will follow," writes Fr. Joel Camaya.
updated 11:05 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
In a gesture toward the romance of Valentine's Day, Pope Francis gave his advice on how to have a happy marriage before thousands of young engaged couples.
updated 2:12 PM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
A senior Vatican official acknowledged Thursday there is "no excuse" for child sex abuse, as he and others were grilled by a U.N. committee about the Catholic Church's handling of pedophile priests.
updated 4:10 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Take a look at Pope Francis' first year in photos with our gallery.
updated 4:22 AM EST, Wed December 25, 2013
Pope Francis rang in his first Christmas at the Vatican with a Christmas Eve Mass preaching a message of love and forgiveness.
updated 6:43 PM EST, Thu November 7, 2013
It was the embrace that melted hearts worldwide.
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Mon July 8, 2013
On the first pastoral visit of his papacy, Pope Francis shunned protocol and politics on a visit to the tiny island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Wed April 3, 2013
On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis kisses and hugs disabled boy lifted up in the crowd.
updated 12:09 PM EDT, Thu April 11, 2013
With the new pope himself a trained scientist, could the timing could be right for a new era of cooperation between the Vatican and science?
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sat March 16, 2013
Pope Francis is being painted as a humble and simple man, but his past is tinged with controversy.
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
One of the first questions many people ask when they start a new job is: What type of car will I get?
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
Call him Pope Francis, the pontiff of firsts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina is known as a humble man, a capable administrator and -- as expected of a new pope -- a man of great faith.
updated 1:25 PM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
Catholic faithful from Latin America cheered the historic election of the first pope from the region Wednesday.
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
St. Francis of Assisi, after whom Pope Francis has taken his name, captures the spirit of many Catholics.