Pope Benedict shows true leadership by resigning

Story highlights

  • Pope Benedict stuns world by announcing he will resign
  • Roland Martin says it's a wise decision for a leader to step down when his powers fail
  • He says a mark of a good leader is the care he takes about the institution he is leaving
  • Martin: Too many in power try to hang on after they are no longer capable

When Thurgood Marshall retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1991, a reporter asked him what were the medical reasons that contributed to his leaving the bench -- and its lifetime appointment -- after serving for nearly 25 years. He was his usual blunt self.

"What's wrong with me?" Marshall said at the packed news conference. "I'm old. I'm getting old and falling apart."

When the news broke this week that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics because of his concerns about being able to do the job, many began to speculate that there were other reasons for the decision.

We have become accustomed to a pope dying in office. That's not a surprise. It has been nearly 600 years since the last pope, Gregory XII, quit in 1415.

Roland Martin

Even though the job of pope is a lifetime appointment, frankly, it is selfish of any individual to hold on to the job for dear life, knowing full well they don't have the capacity to do the job.

"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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," according to a statement from Pope Benedict released by the Vatican.

Whether we want to be honest or not, it was sad to watch the decline of Pope John Paul II. He was a vibrant figure when he became pope in 1978, traveling the world and spreading the gospel to anyone who would listen. But toward the end of his life in 2005, he was barely able to move or talk, clearly worn down by significant health challenges.

Any leader who respects the organization they serve should have the common sense to know when it's time to say goodbye. We've seen countless examples of CEOs, pastors, politicians and others hang on and on to a position of power, hurting the very people they were elected or chosen to serve.

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It takes considerable courage for anyone to step away from the power bestowed upon them by a position, as well as the trappings that come with it.

I'll leave it to others to try to figure out other reasons behind the resignation. But we should at least acknowledge the value of an ego-less decision that reflects humility and concern about the very institution the pope pledged his life to.

All leaders should be concerned about their institution continuing to grow and thrive once their days are no more. That's why a proper succession plan is vitally important.

Too often we have assessed great leaders by what they did in their positions. But their final legacy really is defined by how they left a place.

Pope Benedict XVI knows full well the Catholic Church cannot grow and prosper if its leader is limited in traveling and attending to his flock. There comes a time when one chapter must end and another begins. He has more days behind him than in front of him. He should enjoy his last years in peace and tranquility, without having to worry about trying to do the work designed for a younger man.

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