Those of us who have succeeded in leadership roles have more than likely done so because we were absolutely committed to doing our very best in the role. We’ve done the job, we've read a lot, we’ve studied, we’ve sought feedback and reflected on our own performance, we’ve observed other leaders good and bad and we’ve spent many hours in conversation with our mentors. In short, we’ve felt a strong sense of determination to become the kind of leader that we ourselves would like to follow.
The way we engage in our leadership role brings us a sense of purpose, of satisfaction, and of fulfilment in our life.
Danger, Will Robinson!
As I said in my previous blog article, it is inevitable that our role will come to an end one day. It is a huge mistake for any of us to tie our identity to our role, because if we do that, when the role ends what is left? Who are we then? That’s the question I posed last time.
In this article, I want to focus on you as a leader, and that means not just the leader of the people who follow you but as the leader of yourself.
If you’re a successful, effective leader then you’ve done some work on yourself. You know who you are and you know what you want to be and to do in your life. Leadership is obviously part of that, but I hope you know that it’s not everything. There is more to you than that. Whatever that “more” is, it’s up to you to discover it and keep it in your mind even as you’re forging your successful leadership career.
One of the things I always emphasise when I’m mentoring someone in a leadership role is to never stop asking, “what’s new, what’s better, what’s next?” Of course you’ll be asking those questions in connection with the work that you and your people are doing, but you must ask them in the context of your own career, too. Foresight, the ability to observe trends and predict what may happen in the future, is an important attribute of a successful leader, and you must be able to bring it to bear on your own career.
Another absolute rule I’ve always followed is to know when it’s time to quit, and to quit when it’s time.
It’s a rare skill to be able to recognise when it’s time to quit. You’ve spent a lot of time and energy, blood, sweat and tears, getting to where you are. By nature, you’re not a quitter. Your ego is constantly telling you that you're the best person for this role, probably the best person that's ever been in this role, and that there's no one who could even come close to doing as good a job as you do if you quit now. Nevertheless, there will come a time when it’s right for you to move on from your current role.
How long have you been in the role? And how long is long enough?
How do you know when the time has come to move on?
One guiding principle is to notice when the role has started taking more from you than it is giving to you. Notice when you start feeling drained at the end of each day, and when you no longer look forward eagerly to stepping into your role whenever you’re called on to do so. Be aware when you’re no longer challenged by the role so that you’re neither learning nor growing, personally nor professionally. At this point you’re just cruising, and if you stay there any longer you’re heading for stagnation. Regardless of how worthy the role may be, you’re serving neither yourself nor those who follow you if you stay there past that point.
One fine day you will wake up with a sinking feeling, "I really don't feel like going to work today." When the thought of taking up your role fills you with dismay it's unquestionably time to get out of there and do something else. You owe it to yourself, to those who follow you, and to the organization that employs you, to recognize when that time has come.
Rest assured, there will be someone waiting in the wings to take over from you. Hopefully, it’s someone whom you, yourself, have groomed for the role. You must recognize when it’s time for you to get out of their way and let them take the reins.
How many leaders have you observed hanging on past their use-by date, while their potential successors watch on with mounting frustration? It happens in politics all the time, when a much-respected leader hangs on too long and is eventually challenged and deposed by a younger upstart. That’s a traumatic experience for all involved. Wouldn’t it be better if the leader acknowledged that the time had come for a change?
Understanding that the time has come to quit is just the first part of the challenge. Once you’ve come to that understanding, you must act on it. That’s going to take courage and determination - exactly the attributes that helped to make you a successful leader in the first place.
That’s not to say that you should abruptly resign your role and walk away never to be seen again. That, it would seem to me, looks like running away, and running away is always a mistake. You must never run away from anything. If you must run, then run towards something new, something better.
Finding that new, better thing will take some observation, some reflection, some imagination and some planning. If you’re smart, you’ll have had one eye on what might come next right from the beginning of your time in your current role. You might not know exactly what it’s going to look like, but you’ll have an idea of the general direction and you’ll have been looking for opportunities that could help you to move in that direction. So, when you know the time is right, you’ll be ready to make the decision to quit, and then step right in to what comes next.
Quitting doesn’t mean you’re a loser, that you're giving up, or that you’ve reached the end of the road. It means change. One part of your life’s journey is coming to an end but the next part then begins. “A moment changes all things and to end is but to start,” as a poet once said.
Change is scary, but never forget that it’s a fact of life that those who refuse to change will inevitably have change thrust upon them. Therefore, always seek to be the initiator and the driver of change, and if you can’t do that then be sure that you see the change coming so that you can turn it to your advantage. It is those who cling desperately to the status quo who will be most damaged when change happens. And that very much includes leaders who refuse to admit that it's time to move on.
Know when it’s time to quit, and quit when it’s time.