Do You Need to Walk Away From Your Position? When It’s Time to Make Your Exit
The most powerful act of leadership George Washington ever displayed was to surrender power. This was recently expressed by Joseph Ellis, one of our nation’s leading scholars on revolutionary history.
Surrendering power. Giving up a great position. Why would anyone ever want to do that? Great leaders do when it’s time. Let me share with you some thoughts as to when you may consider doing just that.
Consider another brilliant military commander from history: Julius Caesar. He was unrivaled in his military victories. He insisted that he remain in power, becoming a dictator, thus ushering the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.
Both Washington and Caesar were exemplary military commanders who brought glory to their nations. One walked away from power, making way for an age of democratic greatness. And the other, drunk with power, remained, bringing with him an age of autocratic rule.
Leaders Who Did Not Walk Away
History is replete with leaders who did not walk away. Lebanon, (the country I am from) is still the same today as it was in the mid-1980s. All the government leaders have managed to elevate their sons to take their positions when they leave. These are terrible leaders failing their country and perpetuating decay to the next generation.
Other historical examples of leaders who did not walk away, thus bringing disgrace to themselves and their nations, include: Oliver Cromwell in England, Napoleon of France, Stalin of Russia, Mao of China, and Castro of Cuba. All, powerful reformers who used their immense popularity to remain in power instead of modeling a healthy transition of power.
When It’s Time to Walk Away
Here is a leader who walked away: Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Like George Washington, he placed the interest of his country before his own. You may not be the leader of a country, but in whatever capacity you lead, there may come a time when remaining in leadership causes your people, yourself or your legacy, great harm.
Here are some thoughts to keep in mind.
It’s not about you; it’s about the organization you lead. That’s right. It is about the people and team you lead. Great leaders put themselves at the service of others. Their leadership is never for the sake of their own glory.
Give yourself a period of time. Do your best, then leave. I’ve heard it said that eight years is the magic number…that in eight years you would have tried everything you know. It could be five or fifteen, but at a certain time, new leadership may do your team a lot of good.
Try to leave when you get your people to their goal. Washington and Mandela persisted, sacrificed, and persevered until they got their people to the Promised Land. Then they took a bow. If it is possible, leave your people in victory. If you give up in hard times, you leave a legacy of failure for the organization.
If you simply cannot lead the organization well, leave it to someone else. It is difficult to lead when things are tough and to leave if you don’t have the capacity to lead well. As leaders, we feel horrible when we are not able to lead a team or organization to success. We stay just because we want to prove that we can. Remember, regardless how good we are as a leader, we cannot lead every person, every team, or in every time well. Sometimes, we just become ineffective. Don’t preside over failure, my friend. Just leave with dignity. Tell your people, “I did my best and I am not able to bring you success. I would like to resign and allow you to find another person who may do a better job.” This will be your finest hour. It’s not the end for you. Search for a cause or a people that you are fit to lead. They are out there.
Leaving requires the highest caliber of character, resilience, and confidence. Do not seek power and prestige over what is best for your people. That is precisely why we think so highly of leaders like Washington and Mandela, who fought so hard for their nations and had the integrity and humility to put others above their personal agendas.
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