Un-Leadership – The Art of Exiting

Commonly you are coached into a successful role or as a leader, uncommonly you are not coached out. Let’s explore “un-leadership” together.

Here are three likely scenarios:

1.    You have made the pinnacle of your career and industry, you are followed and admired by your colleagues and peers, now it’s time to retire and study your Buddhist scripts in Kathmandu;

2.    You are a young entrepreneur, you have found the secret to highly profitable start-ups and have smashed it financially, now you want to tackle a new challenge; and

3.    You have volunteered your time in your community for many years, you are respected and applauded for your work, you have been awarded and rewarded for your selfless acts, now you want to focus on your own life and its meaningful pursuits.

All these scenarios have something in common, yes, it’s you of course but it also has the formula of you leaving a space of leadership. That can be a drastic change in the dynamics of the environment you have created. It can be quite disruptive to you and to those who follow your leadership and may have ripple-effects once you are gone. We hear all the time the phrase “no one is indispensable” and largely it’s true, except when you designed, developed and delivered a vision under your leadership. That’s is your DNA and it’s unlikely your replacement will think and feel the same about it. You need an exit strategy from leadership, I would imagine George Orwell saying “un-leadership”.

In my coaching training and coaching experiences, it’s a topic touched on briefly but I am yet to read, discuss or experience this idea in detail, so I thought I would share my thoughts on this and help provide some digest to the dogma. If we break the un-leadership down into its essentials, it could read like the reverse of gaining leadership, except it’s more about how you take yourself on the journey to exit, as opposed to taking others with you on your ascension.

Make it real

This means that the goal of exit must be committed to, not just the “one day I’ll be gone” rhetoric. You need to commit yourself to a day and time it will happen. Often this is the riskiest step as it means sharing your idea of exit with someone, possibly within your work place or community. People will want to know why you are exiting so the reason must pass muster with you first and then those around you. I won’t go into making messages authentic, as you will have lived this experience. The timing of the departure will also set in motion the necessary step for release of command. It will never be as easy as just packing up and walking out, it needs to be planned to avoid maximum disruption.

Make plans

As mentioned the pathway to un-leadership should have key milestones that help you make the transition to a neutral space. This means that you don’t just jump from one environment to the next, it’s about allowing you some space to process the past, leave it in the past, then ready yourself for the future. In the above three scenarios, the goals are quite different to where you are now and you should not assume that how you have been leading carries forward.  As an example, if you are retiring, then your family is not your next business and leadership role. If you are like me, then your role consumed much of your waking hours and your family has adjusted to this by making a practical pecking order. This does not automatically put you at the top of it, you may be at the bottom. Hence, bringing your leadership style to a domestic environment is not recommended.

Remove yourself from the equation

Yes, Jeff Bridges said it way cooler than I could in the movie Tron, but it is a very poignant statement. Once you are committed, you need to ensure that those around you, are replacing you. Sounds heavy and it will be for a while, as you come to grips with the fact that you won’t be here and your legacy is your ability to allow others to lead and make decisions. The legacy is your vision of things as you saw it and how others will go on to build upon it or redefine it. You can’t own the future so become content with the fact that things will change and you will find other things to be passionate about. You may remember your time longer and more Halcyon than others. You need to build trust early with your replacement(s), you need to let them know they are in control and you are coaching them now, your role changes from leader to guide, your communication style changes from “we” to “you”, not “I”.

Reassure yourself

It will likely happen that the pace and nature of events overtake you.  This means people get used to you not being in charge faster than you imagined, the community replaces you with a new leader quickly, or your retirement party is not rivalling the Presidential inauguration. This is normal! This is your ego telling you that it’s time to go. I recall an urban expression of ghosting, meaning to slip away without hurting anyone’s feelings, this is your ego right now, it’s trying to ghost you but you caught it on the way out the door to a better gig. Just nod at it and let it leave, you will pick it up at the next party. Remember if you look calm and in control, those around you will feel this and work well with the change. No good going out in a straitjacket screaming “you’ll be sorry for this!!” after all, it’s not the last impression you want people to have of you.

Move on

Put your focus and energy into the journey as it needs you more than those behind you. If you do choose to stay in touch with the past life, do not inject your un-leadership into the conversation. Phrases like “Uh Oh, that’s not good”, or “I wouldn’t do it like that”, or “what were they thinking?!” are not helpful. To spectate now; you can watch from the sideline but you cannot interfere with the match. It took me a while to learn this lesson. In coaching circles, they call this conflation meaning the combining of self and work into one. In other words, no one can tell where the job stops and you start and it’s very common for passionate, driven leaders to be in this space. You need an intermediate step or neutral space to get your head right before moving on, and move on you must.

Un-leadership takes commitment, focus and energy by you and your successful transition will depend on how much of each of these ingredients you use.  I received coaching throughout my years as a Business Leader and I would have welcomed the assistance of a coach in my final weeks to ensure I was practising what I am now preaching. A coach keeps you on track to your goal and provides the independent feedback on progress through powerful questions like “When you say you are leaving, what are you saying to yourself?”. Practice this question, write it down and respond on paper in a quiet space, then read it back to yourself. If it sounds like an election speech, then you may not have hit pay dirt yet. If it’s beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, then you are on the right track, keep going, you will know when it feels right.

I would like to hear your own stories of un-leadership and exits and what worked well for you. If you want to share some of the hairy-bits with us as well, that would be welcomed.

If you are teetering on the edge of an exit decision and want some guidance or a conversation, please contact me, I am here to guide you.

About the author

Peter is the founder and Director of Holtmann Professional Services, a global provider of executive coaching, business excellence consulting and career path development. Peter has 20 years of experience in executive roles and has been the President and CEO of a global Non-profit. Peter has written for many journals and blogs, is a keynote speaker and is a champion of prosperity through excellence of leadership.

If you are interested in working with Peter, please reach out to enquiries@holtmann.com.au.