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George Reed
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George Reed

A retired U.S. Army Colonel, George Reed is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership Studies within the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

Transition Is Not Failure

This week's question is an interesting one because it raises the question, "how long is too long" when it comes to the tenure of senior leaders. This is one of those issues where Aristotle's notion of the golden mean would seem to apply; where virtue sits between two extremes.

At one unhelpful end of the spectrum is excessive turbulence in the C-suite, where the "parade of the CEOs" leads to a cynical, dejected, and exhausted workforce. If the tenure is too short employees might seek stability though quiet obstinacy and simply wait out the temporary help at the top. At the other end of the spectrum is the equally deleterious hanger-on who enshrines the past without sufficient emphasis on the future. Virtue clearly lies somewhere in the middle, but finding that happy median is like most things when speaking about leadership--it is easy to say, and difficult to do.

I also suspect that the right period of time at the helm will depend on the organization, the energy of the executive, and the demands of the situation. Some positions take an incredible personal toll. As an example, consider the before and after photographs of our presidents. The evidence of innumerable pressures is etched on their faces.

On the one hand we should value experience and proven track records. Past leadership performance remains a significant predictor of future success. On the other hand experience can be a liability if the way we've always done it becomes the only way to do it. We should also recall that today's most revered leaders were once inexperienced rookies anxious to prove themselves.

Sometimes the leaders are self-aware enough to know when it is time to step down. Others, for reasons that are entirely human, may be the last to discern when it is time to inject new blood into the executive suite. In the latter case boards of directors and those who have the power to make senior leadership decisions would do well to remember that transition is not equivalent to failure and that the needs of the organization trump the desires of the individual.

By George Reed

 |  May 26, 2009; 4:32 PM ET
Category:  Succession Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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