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Alan M. Webber
Editor/Entrepreneur

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

Firing the Leader

You don't have to have read "The Last Hurrah" to know that all too often people in power hang on to their jobs long after they should have stepped down--or been asked to leave.

It happens in sports, when even the best athlete tries one too many come-backs; it happens in business, when the executive refuses to recognize that the world has changed and he or she is still stuck playing by old rules that don't apply. Change is hard; acknowledging that you no longer can quite cut it after things have moved on beyond you, or become too fast for you, or simply moved beyond your sphere of competence is a hard thing for most humans to do.

Most leaders get to the top through a healthy (or unhealthy) combination of ego, drive, ambition, and a disregard for what others may tell them about their limitations. And did I mention ego? So to expect almost anyone who's made it to the top to see with clear eyes that it's time to relinquish the crown voluntarily may be unrealistic.

But here's the real deal: even the highest leader works for someone else. We all report to someone, sooner or later. It may be a board of directors, or a group of investors in the case of an entrepreneur; it may be an executive committee or it may be a political caucus, in the case of an elected congressman; it may be the voters in a general election or it may be a coach, a manager, or an owner in the world of sports. There's always oversight one way or another.

When a leader stays too long, it's usually the fault of the oversight committee--people who are too timid or too intimidated to do what they probably know is right, but desperately want to avoid having to do. It may feel like a harsh judgment to tell the aging super-star that it's time to hang'em up; it may feel like a coup to replace an out-of-touch committee chair with a fresher, more relevant leader; it may feel unkind to tell a CEO that it's time to go write a book or devote themselves to philanthropic causes.

But ultimately, that's what the leaders-of-leaders have to do. They're the ones who have to have the character to tell the leader who reports to them that it's time for a change. That's their job--and when they don't do it, that's usually when the leader who reports to them overstays their welcome.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  May 26, 2009; 2:59 PM ET
Category:  Succession Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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