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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Good leaders never give up? Nonsense

Question: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week confronted a dilemma faced by many leaders: whether to step aside when things go wrong. What should be the criteria guiding such a decision? Did Pelosi make the right choice? Should she have offered to resign but let her caucus make the decision? What about Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid?

Sometimes the best thing a leader can do is quit.

Forget the myth nurtured on the football field that leaders never give up. Nonsense. True leaders are smart enough to know when to stop bashing their heads against opposition stronger than themselves. Even smarter ones, and may I add more courageous ones, know that the bravest thing to do is to give up.

General Robert E. Lee taught us this lesson at Appomattox when he surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. Supporters, even the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, urged Lee to take to the hills and fight a rearguard action. As historian Jay Winik tells the story in April 1865, Lee knew he could prolong the conflict but he also knew that to do so would be folly. And so he surrendered to Grant in a way that would allow his troops to do so with a measure of respect as well as would spare the nation more bloodshed.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would do well to heed Lee's example. After the losses of historic proportions for Democratic House members, she needs to step aside and allow a new leader and a new generation of leaders to step to the fore. Failure to do so marks her as obstinate and stubborn rather than gracious and forward thinking.

Fortunately most leaders will never face the dilemma that Lee did or Pelosi does, but there are three questions leaders who question their ability to continue can ask themselves prior to making a decision about stepping aside.

How effective am I? It is a truism to say that leaders accomplish very little by themselves. What they do is work through and with others to fulfill purpose and achieve results. Effective leaders are those who set the direction but do not do the work (except in extreme situations). Their effectiveness then is based on instilling followership, rooted in mission and nurtured by a high degree of esprit de corps.

Can my team succeed without me? We say good leaders surround themselves with people who are independent-minded but also willing to submit to a leader's authority in order to execute the mission. But so often strong-willed leaders drive away all but the "yes" people. If a leader is left with followers with no backbone, the organization is doomed to fail ultimately.

Are people loyal to me or to my cause? Legacy of a leader is when things can carry on well without you. Leaders of conviction who stand the test of time are those who have courage and conviction but have also prepared another generation to carry their actions forward. Such legacy is not simply for political leaders but for leaders in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Will the organization survive without the person at the top? If not, that is a greater problem and may hinder a leader's ability to exit.

Such questions provoke thoughts that get to the core of a leader's being. All of us in a position of leadership want to be known for our ability to get things done, especially in challenging times. But sometimes stepping aside for the next person is the best a leader can do.

Sometimes the toughest thing a leader can do is walk away. Quitting for the good of the organization is not an act of despair; it is an act of courage.

By John Baldoni

 |  November 8, 2010; 6:02 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Followership , Government leadership , Leadership development , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Political leadership , Politics , Succession , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: There is no dilemma | Next: How Pelosi is like KU's Coach Gill

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