By Tim Hayes

“I am no longer the pope but I am still in the Church. I’m just a pilgrim who is starting the last part of his pilgrimage on this earth.” So said Pope Benedict XVI in his final public audience before resigning his office earlier this week.  Finding the right words to say goodbye can be a real challenge.  Some do it better than others.

You can choose the metaphorically self-immolating route, like a Wall Street funds manager in 2008, who headed out of his employer’s door blasting away with verbal shotguns, burning every bridge in sight, with this actual quote: “The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.”

I’m guessing that fellow didn’t carry many references in his briefcase from his bosses after that little diatribe, true as it may have been.

Some leaders can’t bring themselves to say farewell at all, like our second President, John Adams.  After failing re-election, Adams became the first of only three presidents in U.S. history to not stay for the inauguration of his successor, and left the White House quietly under the cover of nightfall.  No farewell at all, just a lonely carriage ride back to Massachusetts.

My thought on the perfect farewell would be a blending of honesty, humility, gratitude, humor, and brevity.  You’re leaving, so don’t linger too long on the goodbyes.  The last thing you want is for the people left behind thinking, “If I promise to miss you, will you PLEASE GO AWAY!”

In record speed, the farewell letter sent this week by ousted Groupon CEO Andrew Mason was hailed as having each of those qualities.  A few excerpts:  “After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today…the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable…you deserve the outside world to give you a second chance. I’m getting in the way of that. A fresh CEO earns you that chance…My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers. This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!”

The refreshing candor and self-deprecation, balanced with some truly heartfelt observations for the people Mason was leaving behind, made his letter an instant classic.

Speaking of classics, the ending of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” offers, for my money, the greatest farewell ever written.  Sydney Carton secretly sacrifices his life in substitution for that of his look-alike, the unjustly convicted aristocrat Charles Darnay, because Carton has long harbored an unrequited love for Darnay’s wife, Lucie.  As Carton is led to the guillotine during the height of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, he imagines what he would have written as his final thoughts.  They are, in part, as follows:

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out…

“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name…I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both…

“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his…and I hear him tell my story, with a tender and a faltering voice…

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

Wow.  That brilliant writing takes my breath away every time I read it, because it conveys such a hopeful view of a shining future even in the face of imminent, instant, brutal death.  It’s a farewell so fine, so heroic, so noble, that it has stood the literary test of more than 150 years. It’s no wonder Dickens is buried within Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, alongside Tennyson, Browning, and Chaucer.

How would you choose to say farewell from a job, a relationship, a life?  Choose carefully and well, because how you say goodbye will be long remembered.  In that moment, words matter more than ever.

Copyright 2013 Tim Hayes Consulting