Fifty Ways To Leave

 In Character, Duty, Entrepreneurship, Fred's Blog, Leadership, Relationships, Transitions, Uncategorized

Listen to “Fifty Ways To Leave” by Fred Smith

 

When I began writing this blog almost eight years ago, John Kelly was my editor. He told me, “Don’t worry about being relevant or even timely. That is what op-ed columnists and pundits do. Write about what you are thinking. People can choose to read it or not but what you are thinking is the most important thing for you to write.” That has proved to be good advice and has kept me – for the most part – off the side road of relevance.

Now, even though I know it will not be on the front burner for many who read this, I am thinking about transition. In fact, I am keeping a journal as I have not been here before and everyone has a different experience. From some of the comments to last week’s piece, I may have left the impression that this has been an orderly process and we did what you might call the Isaiah plan. That is where you make straight a highway through the wilderness with every mountain and hill made low and the rough ground made level. It did not happen that way. It never does. I’ll save that for another time because this week I want to focus on a topic needing to be thought through both at the beginning of the process and the end. That is the issue of how you leave. Many years ago a friend told me this, “How you exit is more important than anything you did while you were there because this is the last thing people remember about you.” That was wise and it is true. How do we leave well?

The best book I have read on this is “The Hero’s Farewell” by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. The hero is not a superhuman figure but the one who, in Max DePree’s words, defines reality for the organization. The hero is the one with the responsibility to give meaning to the work and the manner in which they leave has an impact on the organization and those who work there. Not just now but years later.

Sonnenfeld describes four (not fifty) different styles of departure and I think he is right.

The Monarch does not leave office until they are decisively forced out through death or an internal coup. “Monarchs leave their thrones only through their death, ill health, or a palace revolt. Monarchs often rule over a kingdom of their own creation. The monarchs themselves may become enslaved by their leadership plans because the original mandate is enshrined as a sacred mission.” Founders are especially subject to this because there is very little distinction in their minds between the mission of the organization and their personal identity.

The General departs in a style also marked by a forcible exit. They leave reluctantly but, unlike the monarch, they plot their return and quickly come back to the office out of retirement in order to “rescue the organization from the real or imagined inadequacy of his or her successor. The general enjoys being the returning savior and often hopes to remain around long enough to take the firm and himself toward even greater glory.” It is difficult to commit yourself to the success of the next leader when you are secretly or openly hoping they will fail and you will be called back to duty.

The Ambassador leaves office quite gracefully and frequently serves as a post-retirement mentor. They may remain involved in a changed role for some time, but they do not try to sabotage the successor. “As wise elder statesmen, they provide a safe haven to which others could turn for advice.” They look for appropriate opportunities to share their knowledge, experience, and networks of relationships. They signal continuity and stability to customers and markets. “Retired leaders thus serve as symbolic guardians of the company’s goals.” Ambassadors are in control of their egos and committed to the success of both the new leader and the organization.

The Governor rules for a limited term of office then shifts to other outlets entirely after departure. They do not stay connected or look back. They are off on a new quest. “The retiring governor usually leaves the office for a completely new activity for which they have likely been making plans in the last years of their time in leadership. In general, governors are delighted to see their child grow up and live its own life. Their accomplishments and reputation are portable. They combine two seemingly opposite qualities – a strong attachment to a sense of duty to accomplish, and an almost serene disregard for the trappings of authority.” Governors travel light.

So, there are the best choices I have seen described. It’s worth repeating my friend’s advice: “How you leave is more important than anything you did while you were there because this is the last thing people remember about you.”

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 16 comments
  • Sam
    Reply

    Nice reminder, Fred, that we will all be leaving, either this “mortal coil” or our job/position.
    My sweet Mom went Home in January, and at the end was sweetly singing “Coming Home, coming Home, never more to roam. Open wide Those Arms of Love, LORD, I’m coming Home.”
    She had planned and joyfully lived expectantly for that blessed transition her entire life, and almost gleefully welcomed it as her body quickly failed.
    Whether we are talking of death, or of retirement, or just a new job, it was a good example for the transitions we each face.
    Neither death (or as Christians view it, a transition to Eternal Life) or a new chapter in our lives, should find us unprepared: plan, prepare, then flow into that new rile or situation.
    A timely reminder, Fred.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Sam. As always, you add value.

  • Janita Smith
    Reply

    Very relevant to me personally right now. Interesting thoughts on four types of exits. Ambassador or Governor?

    Hmmmm. Two years yet to plan, but it isn’t easy to grow something then leave it to others after hard work, prayer, pain, etc.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Good, Janita! You may find it easier the closer you get to knowing that leaving is the right thing to do. I thought it would be harder than it has been.

  • Alyson Hinkie
    Reply

    Fantastic! My main job is being a Mom, and I’m in transition, too, as my kids are trickling out of my home. This post was the final puzzle piece for some writing I’ve been working on. Thank you for sharing – and that first paragraph is lovely advice for writers. Trying to stay relevant, keep up with the current buzz, and fit into the club is exhausting and it kills creativity. For the first time in a long time, this makes me consider taking up the blog again with intent.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Alyson. Staying relevant is like drinking salt water. Yes, it does kill creativity. Do it. Start writing.

  • Kerry Whitaker Townsend
    Reply

    You and Carol are loved by so many and will be sorely missed… especially by me. You have taught me thru all our trips together (Rwanda, Cambodia, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Seattle) the importance of giving…which I KNOW IN MY HEART makes me a better person… thank you Fred. ❤️🙏😇

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Kerry! Your compassion and intuition is a gift.

  • timothy m skoog
    Reply

    leave as an ambassador. remain an ambassador…2 corinthians 5:20 and…you don’t have to reprint business cards

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Anything we can do to minimize transition expense is good! My total focus next year is helping make Josh as successful as possible.

  • Howard Freeman
    Reply

    How about the Martyr, like a MLK Jr., who leaves unexpectedly or, like Jesus, who leaves somewhat (arguably) unwillingly but ultimately deferentially and sacrifically, each catalyzing a movement beyond his wildest dreams.

    For the record, I am not suggesting that this be your plan.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Howard. These are not options I considered and would rather not!

  • Eric Girardin
    Reply

    Another good book I read when I last made a significant transition was “Necessary Endings” by Dr. Henry Cloud.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Eric. Being one of the first Baby Boomers (born in 1946) this is a topic that will have legs for quite a while.

  • Vickie Winkler
    Reply

    Very helpful Fred. You have a good picture of how to exit wisely. We are in the midst of searching for the replacement of me for our organization. I am the founder and this is a good reminder to make a graceful exit.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      The transitions of founders to “following the founder” is going to increase over the next several years and we need to pay attention to it. I appreciate your wanting to do that.

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