Can a Step Back Really Be a Step Forward?

I was talking to a leader of a non-profit group today about leadership transitions.  He came right out and said, “This is a flaw of mine.  I can’t step back as a leader.  After I call the shots, I can’t be in the background.  I either have to be in charge or be out of the picture.”

In his candor, he admitted something that a lot of leaders cannot:  Once they have been the boss they have a difficult time staying in the background after they have “moved on” or taken a consultant role.  Why is this so difficult?

One reason is ego (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense).  People who lead a process or program for a long time have an emotional commitment to it.  If they’ve done a good job, things run smoothly due to their efforts and it is tough to see someone else doing it better (or even trying to).

Another reason is lack of preparedness.  Not having a succession plan gives the outgoing leader anxiety.  What if the next person messes it up?  The stress can be relieved by developing the next generation of leaders.

At the same time, the outgoing leader has to realize that nothing is forever.  It would be great if he could step away and provide sage advice on an as needed basis without having to be in charge.  The organization will profit from the experience.

For the benefit of the new leaders, boundaries should be set during the transition.  The old and new leader (and probably a 3rd party) should be specific about the outbound leader’s role and responsibilities.  It will probably take an iteration or two before the right mix of involvement is struck.  And that might mean the old leader gets completely out of the picture.  But the leader who finds how he can be useful and allow future leaders to succeed will find a longer lasting legacy than just his contributions.

For more information on leadership development, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or [email protected]

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