The notion that leaders predictably decay like loaves of bread on a store shelf seems harsh, to say the least, but that’s exactly the suggestion made by one executive we work with. It is his view that there is a natural executive life cycle, and one he personally experienced as the head of a large foundation. Simply put, he began his tenure eight years ago full of energy and ideas. Early on he was deliberately disruptive; following a modest house cleaning and a reordering of priorities, he established new internal alignment and a fresh public face. Over the next few years he transformed his organization from sleepy and provincial to one of national prominence. From the outside, it seemed he had hit his stride.

Then, quite recently he announced his intent to “retire”. At lunch he conceded that he had felt for some time “tapped out” and no longer confident he was the right person to take the foundation to the next level. In essence, it was time to go. He claimed that his experience is common in the not-for-profit world, even anticipated, and likely quite a bit more prevalent in the private sector than one might realize, but far less openly considered. We are not talking about “burn out”, a phenomenon related to long-term exhaustion and a related disinterest in work. Rather, being “tapped out” for him meant that he had run through a cycle that started with fresh ideas, drive, and determination and was now on the down side realizing he was no longer generating ideas, nor inspiring others.  

Our view is less settled because we’ve seen exceptions. Not all leaders have a predictable expiration date.  Of course, all leaders need to hand over their responsibilities someday, though some leaders deny or rationalize this.  Those that tend to believe their own press or surround themselves with “yes” men or women are at greater risk of overstaying their welcome. Still, we’ve seen far too many long-tenured leaders that have remained productive, buy into the idea that a decline is inevitable; at least as our friend described it. Yet we are also quite certain the cycle he described exists for some.

What to do?

If you recognize our friend’s cycle in yourself or someone you know, there are arguably two courses of action, but each requires early diagnosis.

The first course takes some real work. It requires a serious revitalization campaign. No doubt a new challenge of significance can breathe life into a fading leader. Many a CEO, for example, found the recent recession to be a tough but compelling reason to get out of bed. A more controllable path might be to deliberately shift energy-depleting responsibilities to others and take on responsibilities that provide greater satisfaction. We know of one executive who found new life through his focus on mentoring junior officers. Obviously, there is a risk in diverting attention from certain executive-level responsibilities. Judicious delegation combined with the bandwidth of successful leaders usually allows  this type of accommodation.

The second course involves confronting reality and gracefully conceding that “the game is nearly over”. If this can occur early enough, the transition to another leader can be managed through succession planning. The lead time to prepare a viable successor can be years – assuming you have one on board! So, though we believe that retirement is artificially tied to age, as a leader enters a final phase of his or her work life, it is wise to think about succession planning, even if that leader is still functioning at a high level.

In sum, when a leader begins to disengage for any reason, this can have a disastrous effect on their organization.  If it is true that some executives actually fall into the natural pattern of diminished potency over time, then we should all work harder to recognize the warning signs and prepare accordingly.   We intend to write more about this subject and we welcome your thoughts or examples.