Fifty Ways To Leave
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.”