Catholics are stunned by the news that Pope Benedict XVI is retiring at the age of 85, for health reasons. What might be more surprising is that he held on as long as he did.
There aren't many huge organizations effectively run by 80-something leaders. Sure, medical and cultural advances have allowed people to live rich lives far longer than anybody might have imagined 50 or 500 years ago. Seniors play a vital role in society as grandparents, mentors, living historians and even breadwinners.
But when aging leaders cling too long to power, the results can be unpleasant or worse. Rupert Murdoch, the 81-year-old CEO of News Corp., seemed flummoxed and inarticulate last year when he testified before the British Parliament about the phone-hacking scandal at several of his newspapers. At one point he even appeared to nod off, while his son James handled many of the questions requiring detailed answers.
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was 85 when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, and he seemed perplexed by the uproar during the few times he made unrehearsed comments on the matter. Granted, Paterno was a young stallion still in his 70s when Sandusky actually committed the crimes that wrecked the school's football program, but even then Paterno showed no comprehension of how grave the problem was.
When old leaders past their prime refuse to step down, it can be particularly damaging. Good leaders know when it's time for them to step aside. Bad leaders cling to power way too long, for personal reasons. When a fading leader still has the power to remain in his post, it can breed institutional rot. Penn State officials repeatedly urged Paterno to retire, for example, yet he rebuffed them, apparently determined to remain head coach until he could no longer walk onto the field.
There are a few examples of leaders in their 80s who seem to retain plenty of vigor for the job. One obvious example is Warren Buffett, the 82-year-old investing guru, who is still CEO of the conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway and seems as sharp as ever.
Yet it's undeniable that at some point, just about everybody loses some physical stamina and mental acuity. For most of us, that probably occurs before the age of 80. It's even more obvious that 80-year-olds are out of touch with the ways people half their age—or one-quarter their age—live, work and communicate.
If any organization could use a dose of youth at the top, it's the Catholic Church. The worldwide sexual abuse scandal that began to surface a decade ago still hasn't been fully explained by church leaders who are invariably old and male. Many people still wonder if the church gets it. Meanwhile, younger Catholics are losing interest—even in Catholic strongholds such as France and Spain—and the church is struggling to attract priests to its all-male fraternity. If the church were a public company, shareholders would have revolted by now.
In some cases where influential old-timers insist on hanging around, their colleagues have come up with clever workarounds. Sumner Redstone, the 89-year-old executive chairman of Viacom, may be the oldest working executive in corporate America. But he stepped down as CEO in 2006, allowing a much younger man to handle the day-to-day duties of running the company and all the stress that goes with it.
The oldest CEO in America may be 85-year-old O. Bruton Smith of Sonic Automotive. Like Redstone, he founded the company he works for, which may give him a bit more of a claim to the top job. Still, anybody running a public company is answerable to shareholders, with an obligation to do what's best for the organization, not for himself.
The Catholic Church obviously has no shareholders, but it does have an obligation to manage itself as effectively as possible. That's in the interest of more than 1 billion Catholics around the world, and of the church itself. The elders in Rome might discover that a 50- or 60-year-old whippersnapper at the helm of the church would be good for business.
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.