Evan Bayh: When should a leader step down?
When should a leader step down? Those of us in the leadership development community spend a great deal of time, energy and resources in preparing men and women to lead but comparatively little time preparing them to exit.
This week Indiana Senator Evan Bayh's announced he will not seek re-election. His decision is surprising to many because he was well ahead in the polls and had amassed a significant re-election campaign fund. But, according to his public statements, Bayh had become increasingly disillusioned with the partisanship in the Senate and, as a centrist, found himself at odds with those on the left and the right. So he opted out.
Did Bayh do the right thing? Will his decision put the fate of the Democratic agenda at risk? Those are questions for the pundits. But for leaders there is a more personal question at the heart of this political story.
At its best, leadership is about more than the person in charge: It is about the organization, the constituency, even the country. Sometimes leaders hang on far too long, crafting the organization in their own image, and other times they leave so abruptly that the organization is left hanging.
Every leader should ask him or herself: When is the right time to leave? The answer to this question may come down to the answer to this simple question: How effective are you?
Here are three ways to find out the answer:
Ask your organization: "Do you think I have what it takes to lead us?" Leadership -- and followership -- often boil down to trust, and leading effectively means earning the support of your people every day. Sometimes, no matter how noble the cause, people stop listening to the person in charge and want someone new to lead.
Ask colleagues: "Do you still believe in my ability to lead?" Be sure to distinguish here between management and leadership. As a manager, you might still be able to bring things together on time and on budget, but a leader needs to be doing more. She needs to inspire the team to enable it to see the possibilities of what it can achieve. That requires leadership that is pushing toward the next goal as well as pulling people to work more effectively together. You may be doing one without the other.
Ask yourself: "Do I still have what it takes to lead?" Let's face it, being the one at the top is tough -- and tiring -- job. Good leaders can lose sense of self and family over time. Therefore, ask yourself: Am I still excited about leading this organization? Or am l drawn to new challenges elsewhere?
A best recent example of someone who knew it was her time to leave was Anne Mulcahy. When she became CEO of Xerox in the summer of 2001, the company was in dire straits financially. Her skillful leadership and her ability to connect with the people of the organization saved the company.
Then last year she felt it was time to step down as CEO to turn things over to her number two, Ursula Burns. Mulcahy, who remains as chairman, believed Burns had earned the top spot by virtue of her success in previous positions as well as her operational expertise and commitment to innovation.
The truth is, all of us who lead will need to step down one day -- or be pushed out. The lessons of those who did so gracefully should provide good guidance. Sometimes you need to step up to serve and lead, even when that job is difficult, but other times you must step away to recover your sense of self or to allow the organization to continue its growth. Evan Bayh has made his choice: What is yours?
February 17, 2010; 6:15 AM ET
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