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I’ve known several leaders who didn’t know when to leave. They stayed too long, tainted their reputations, and nearly destroyed their organizations because they couldn’t pull the plug.

These leaders were good people, even superb leaders. But they didn’t have the will to leave. Or just as often, well-intentioned supporters begged leaders to stay long past when wisdom suggested otherwise and the leaders allowed themselves to be beguiled by vox populi. Their organizations paid the price.

No leader lives nor lasts forever. Sooner or later, all leaders resign, retire, are fired, or die in office. I know leaders who’ve found ways to delay or avoid the first three options. I don’t know of any who’ve delayed the last option—other than by moving on and dying out of office.

Whatever. Leaders eventually leave. It’s a given. The concern here are leaders who try to lengthen “eventually” indefinitely.

Not to pick on the man, but Dr. Robert H. Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral may be a case in point. I’m not attacking him, but I believe he’s given us plenty of evidence recently to make my point about great leaders knowing when to leave. Dr. Schuller hasn’t left.

The man is 84 years old. I attended a service last fall, my first and only, and saw for myself how as an older man he got confused a couple of times in the pulpit. More to the point, he turned the reins over to his son and then took them back. He’s turned the reins over to his daughter and just this week countermanded her leadership in public, even calling the press to state his open disagreement with something she had done. Whatever right and wrong or good and best might be regarding the specific issues, Dr. Schuller is demonstrating what it looks like when a leader is so tied into his/her organization that he/she cannot leave long past the time when he/she should have done so.

Leaders sometimes get to a point they confuse their own ego with their position, i.e., “I am the President,” or CEO, etc. It, the leadership role, and me are the same in the leader’s mind. This is not good for him or her or the organization.

Leaders who don’t know when to leave can, in a short time, nearly destroy an organization they worked years to build. I’ve seen this happen and out of grace to others involved I won’t name two universities where this indeed took place.

I could name a university where the newly appointed president found 7 former presidents serving on the Board. How’d you like to face that each time you suggested a change? It's a free country, and this university can do this if it wants, but freedom to act doesn't guarantee wise actions.

I can name “big name” pastors who didn’t know when or how to leave, and worse, hadn’t over the years developed a “bench” of new leaders. In other words these pastors failed to do what John Maxwell says is one of the most important things a leader can do: develop the leaders around you, for the sake of the future of the organization.

Leaders who stay “too long” only end up weakening their organizations. No one stays on top forever. No leader, no matter how good his/her track record, is the only person capable of running the organization well. Sure, there are great ones out there who’ve gone away and come back—Steve Jobs of Apple, Howard Schultz of Starbucks—but they are rare.

Great leaders know when to leave—and then they do. It’s a simple as that. President George Washington retired to Mt. Vernon and then studiously resisted multiple overtures attempting to lure him back into politics or to get him to make public statements criticizing his successors. His is a good model.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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