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September 30, 2023

Recognizing When to Step Down or Move On



The mainstream conversation about aging politicians remaining in office got me pondering why people retain leadership positions for too long. Be it politicians, chiefs of police, or CEOs of companies, what is the thought process of remaining for a considerable amount of longevity?

I aim to understand and reconcile those reasons. I hypothesize that individuals lock up positions due to:

    1. Ego
    2. Identity
    3. Selfish Benefits and Greedy Gains
    4. Organizational Success
    5. Denial of Physical or Cognitive Decline


The seductive whisper of ego often shackles individuals to their roles beyond their influential tenures. The ego manifests as a self-indulgent force, compelling leaders to cling to power due to an inflated sense of self-worth and an insatiable desire for recognition, respect, and control.

It blurs the boundary between confidence and arrogance, often leading them to believe that they are indispensable and that their prolonged stay is beneficial, if not crucial, for the organization or community. This overarching desire for self-validation and fear of losing status and influence can overshadow the intrinsic motivation to serve, eventually leading to impaired judgment, stagnation, and, in many instances, the deterioration of the entities they lead.

It is crucial to recognize the corrosive influence of ego to foster leadership that is dynamic, humble, and genuinely devoted to the collective good rather than trapped by self-serving motives.

Identity is closely related to ego. The psychological comfort and social validation derived from prestigious titles can create a fearful attachment to the position. Many cops struggle with leaving the profession because their identity is tied to their job. The same can be said of any position. The reluctance to relinquish such roles, driven by an over-identification with them, impedes organizational evolution and stifles the emergence of new perspectives and innovative ideas.

The relentless pursuit of financial gain often forms the invisible chains that bind individuals to leadership positions long after their season of effective influence has waned. Many leaders stay in place because they must pay off their mortgage or their kids’ college tuition. We are all incentivized to make financial gains, and there is nothing wrong with having this motivation. However, it becomes detrimental to the organization when a leader is looming only for these reasons.

A logical reason to stay is because the organization is profitable or successful. This is tricky because it plays into the “if ain’t broke…” belief. However, the danger is a leader’s deep-rooted reliance that the organization’s success solely depends on their presence. I’ve also heard leaders say they want to stay because the job isn’t finished. In most cases, the job will never finish and is meant to evolve. This belief can create a reluctance to pass the torch, potentially stifling the innovative potential and adaptability of the entity.

It seems obvious, but declining health (physical and cognitive impairment) is a reason to exit your post. Age is the main dispute making headlines in the present day. I hope these individuals surround themselves with a team of truth-tellers who have their best interests in mind. More aptly stated, the best interest of the people they lead. Sadly, I have not seen that.

So how long is too long? I’m only of average intelligence, so I don’t know the answer.

I stayed in my chief’s role for 5 1/2 years, and I decided to leave after a pretty intense soul-searching exercise with myself. I set my ego and identity aside. It was a financial risk because I was not yet eligible to collect my pension when I left. The organization was healthy and thriving, as indicated by the selfless men and women in uniform, low crime rates, and community support. But I felt personally stagnant, and I knew that my internal strife would soon manifest and my people would suffer. I was scared to leave for all of the reasons I’ve cited that people stay too long. It turned out to be the right decision for me and my organization. They needed new energy, and I needed to learn who I was outside the police department, where I spent my entire adult life.

You may be doing a great job in your leadership role, but I implore you to hold up a mirror and determine if you’re past your expiration date — which has nothing to do with age. Are there junior leaders waiting in the wings who aren’t being provided an opportunity to lead because you are taking up a spot? If you’ve done your job well, you should be able to walk out of your organization knowing it’s in the capable hands of those you’ve developed to take your place. You should be kicking down doors for others to walk through.

A great leader knows when to leave because astute judgment and self-awareness are paramount to effective leadership. Recognizing when to step down or move on is often as crucial as knowing when to step up.

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