How to Exit Leadership the Right Way

Harvard Business Review

March 24, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

When your successor is ready to assume the role of leadership, you need to be ready to do something that can be extremely difficult – you need to leave.

You may be tempted by board members to stay on the board or perhaps become the non- executive chairman. If you really want your successor to be the CEO, fight this temptation. I know of a few cases where this model has worked well. It often doesn’t.

I don’t have to mention names. You know a long list of former CEOs and founders who have claimed to develop and support their successor – until hard times hit the company. Then – although they allegedly didn’t want to – they “felt the call” to replace their successor and had to return to “save” the company.

This “comeback” phenomenon is especially likely to occur if you are either the founder of the company – or the person largely credited with the company’s success.

If you really don’t want to leave – stay as CEO. Staying on a CEO is not immoral, illegal or unethical. If you want to stay, and the company can benefit from your staying, knock yourself out. Go for it as long as you can. Be honest with yourself. Just skip the whole “I’m staying on to develop my successor” thing.

One of the greatest examples of CEO succession that I know involved a CEO who actually left before he was scheduled to go. His successor was highly-sought after, and, as a sign of his true commitment to succession, the CEO left the company early so his successor would know the job was his. This showed some real leadership.

No matter how great you are, you are going to have to leave sometime. We all get old – and we all die. So show some class on the way out. Do whatever you can to make your successor a winner. Get over your own ego.

Even if other people don’t know what you have done – your successor will. And more important, you will. If all goes well, you may have taught your successor a great lesson – how to successfully pass the baton of leadership to the next generation of leaders.