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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Test for competence

Q: When he died this week, Robert Byrd, who was a frail 92, had represented West Virginia in the Senate for more than 50 years. Is it generally a good idea for top leaders in any sector to serve that long, or that late in life? Given the common instinct to hang on, should limits be imposed?

As one who is nearing retirement age, but feels fit, I think a lot about this issue. In a perfect world, we would not have an obligatory retirement age. There would be tests for competence, and those who could pass them reliably would be welcome to stay on. And for those who could not pass the test, there would be a dignified exit from the stage. Such a procedure can work in spheres that are relatively clear cut, like driving an automobile.

In an imperfect world, retirement ages are necessary. They are necessary because individuals do lose their powers, are often unaware of their losses, and their colleagues are reluctant to bear the bad news. As a result of this imperfection, companies or legislations may lose good people prematurely but in general life goes on.

At the same time, it is important to have exceptions, with explicit rules for when the exceptions are invoked. A recent example is what occurred at Harvard in the spring of 2006, following the forced resignation of Lawrence Summers as president. It was clear to many of us on
the faculty that there was one person who was most likely to calm the waters on campus-- Derek Bok, who had been president from 1971to 1991.

Though out of office for years, and already well into his 70s, Bok returned to the presidency for a limited period of time. Interesting, it was he who insisted on the limit of a year (and no night-time appearances!). The university benefited enormously, even though the move was unprecedented.

With improvements in medical science and in health generally, we need to be flexible about retirement ages. While 60 or 65 used to be old, there are many spheres where high performance can continue well past those ages. And so I favor retirement ages that are specific to sectors (airplane pilot vs Supreme Court Justice) rather than a 'one number fits all' principle.

By Howard Gardner

 |  June 28, 2010; 2:54 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Knowing when to move on | Next: Finding a place for wisdom

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