Why Leaders Need Term Limits

Normally, successful people are highly committed to their work. Here is the problem: the more committed we are to a given path the harder it is for us to admit when it’s time to leave. This is why leaders need term limits – it is often just too difficult for them to set these for themselves.

I have had the privilege of working with more than 120 CEOs. I’ve also had the unfortunate privilege of working with four CEOs for whom it was time to leave. I said to them, “It is time to leave now. Leave with dignity. Don’t embarrass yourself.” I failed in all four cases. They didn’t leave, and a couple of them were on the covers of national magazines – embarrassing themselves and the company.

Why didn’t they leave when it was time to go? Because it is incredibly difficult for highly successful leaders, who have put their heart and soul into something, to look into the mirror and say, “This doesn’t work. It’s time to go.” The very fact that they are so highly committed to what they are doing makes it very hard for them to hear contrary information. This is true for leaders at all levels, not just the CEOs.

Almost every executive goes through this dialog as part of the challenge of letting go. This fear often results in postponement of the succession announcement until the last minute — and inhibits what could have been a much smoother transition process.

A smoother transition process looks something like this.

When it is approaching time to leave or move on to a new position, face reality — you will become a lame duck. Attention will immediately shift to your successor. Her vision for the future will mean more than yours. If you disapprove of executive team members’ ideas, they will just wait it out and resell the same ideas to your successor. People will start sucking up to her — in the same way they used to suck up to you. Make peace with being a lame duck before it actually happens and your life, your successor’s life, and the lives of your colleagues will be a lot better. Talk to your successor so you can leave them in a position to succeed. Being a lame duck doesn’t have to be all bad. Use this period to coach your successor (behind the scenes). Begin the transfer of power before you have to. Support your successor however you can. Build her confidence. Involve your successor in all important decisions and, to the degree humanly possible, make sure that she agrees with any of your announced strategies. Remember, she is the person who is going to have to live with them for the next few years – and make them work.

If you want to be a great lame duck, make those tough, unpopular decisions that you know are good for the company. Don’t worry about finishing on a great note. Be willing to make long term investments that may cost the company in the short run — but promise to produce desired results in the long run. Be more focused on putting your successor in a position where she will succeed, than finishing in a way that will make you look good.

Be a happy duck. Go home a little earlier. Spend some more time with the family you may have neglected in the past. Reacquaint yourself with your spouse.

My final advice is simple but often ignored—focus less on what you’re leaving and more on where you’re headed next.

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Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.