Saturday, June 27, 2009

Exiting With Grace: On Becoming a Non-Leader

Possibly one of the most challenging aspects of being a leader is letting go of the organization, group, or community you’ve worked hard to build and trust it into the hands of a new leader or board. For some, this is akin to giving up a child – a baby they’ve been nurturing and watching grow for a whole year. For others, just the opposite, they can’t wait to be rid of their mantle of responsibility.

At each spectrum, and everywhere in between, leaders can do a lot for themselves and their successors if they keep a few things in mind.


Often the last impression we leave with someone is permanent, and can outweigh previous ones. In a recent discussion with an outgoing association president, I talked with her about some challenges she was having with the incoming president being too “change-oriented.” This president felt as if all her efforts and hard work were going to be pushed aside and replaced by the incoming president’s new agenda.

My only comment to this president was to focus on the IT – what was best for the association and think about how she wanted to be remembered. He could finish her tenure with dignity, professionalism and enthusiasm – just as she began it. Or, she could finish it with bitterness, discord and ultimately damage her credibility.

When preparing to leave your leadership role, ask yourself this question, “If you were to receive a marble plaque that is laser engraved with a description of how you began, operated and ended your tenure as a leader – what would you want it to say?” Blogger Jocelyn Harmon writes succinctly about this in Writing Your Organizational Epitaph.


As outgoing leader you have both the opportunity to leave a legacy for others to consider and work from, and you have the opportunity to set the incoming leaders up for success. A leader’s job is to build the character and competence of those he or she serves. Your last job as a leader is not only to say thank you to the people who supported you as a leader, but also to ensure that you do everything possible to prepare the way for the next season of leadership.

Thomas Carlyle, the famed historical author wrote, “Tell a person they are brave and you help them become so.” As you prepare to leave, don’t forget to prepare those who will follow. Make sure you equip your incoming leaders with as much information, tools, resources and wisdom that they’ll need to make the next season a banner one for them and the people they serve.


As you transition to your new role of former leader, your job will likely become one of being rather than doing. I like to compare this season of involvement similar to being a grandparent. All the fun and none of the responsibility my in-laws describe it as they play with my children. As you engage as a former leader, you get to enjoy the privilege of being a mentor and coach. Your role is not to manage the president or new volunteers, and give direction. Rather your job is to offer advice, counsel and provide a sounding board to the new leaders as they face their own issues in leadership.

Finally, as an outgoing leader you have the wonderful opportunity to celebrate. Make sure to take time to celebrate all the work that was accomplished throughout – even the small things. Leading is hard and rewarding work. Be sure not to sell your accomplishments short by forgetting to rejoice in them.

What sorts of ways have you seen leaders effectively pass the torch to others? Share those examples here!

-- David Kinard, PCM

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