Why CEOs Can’t Let Go

Harvard Business Review

February 18, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

Being next in line for the big job, you may understand in a few years what makes it so hard for any leader, including the CEO, to move on. If you have personally been through a departure, you may laugh as you relate to the examples I’m about to give. You may remember how difficult it was to let go.

Nearly all of the leaders I have talked to over the years have assured me that they will be different when it’s time to move — that they will have no problem letting go of their jobs. When it comes down to it, however, it’s smarter to accept and make peace with the fact that it will be difficult to let go.

Though as a CEO or leader, one may have faced an incredible amount of stress and pressure, the job naturally also came with many great benefits. Recognize that a leader who is moving on will have to give up some or all of the following:


Company leaders make a great salary. They may not be interested in showing off their riches; they may choose to give much of their money away to their favorite charity; they may want for absolutely nothing; and yet it is still hard to let go of the “personal scorecard” that money easily becomes. Money can become a way to count how valuable we are and when we make less of it, we may feel we are less valuable — this is not the case, of course, but just knowing that has never stopped a feeling!


Some company leaders are lucky enough to go to sports games and sit in the special “company box;” they may fly around in the company jet; they may have a great personal assistant. It can be very difficult to face long airport security lines, bad seats at the game, and scheduling calls and meetings yourself after so many years with these great perks. My suggestion to retiring executives? Hire a personal assistant. You can afford it and you will free up your time to do the things that are personally rewarding to you and that make a contribution to others.


Being a leader or company executive, you learn to live with an incredible amount of status. You have been introduced for years as “So-and-so, the head of the company.” Now you are introduced as “So-and-so, the person who used to be…” The people you meet may be less admiring or pass by you to talk to more significant people in the room. Make peace with this loss of status. Learn to enjoy others’ success.


Studies indicate that most leaders have a higher need for power than most people … although they often don’t realize it. Power is very hard to let go of. For instance, one little suggestion from the CEO quickly becomes an order. Even if the CEO didn’t mean it to be an order, her word is law. Over time as you move into higher and higher levels of authority, you have gained more and more power…gradually. But when you decide to leave your position, you will lose all this power … suddenly! This can be hard to take.

Now, stop and review what the CEO gives up when she transits out of her job: money, status, perks, and power. This is to say nothing of the immaterial benefits of being a leader, such as relationships, happiness, meaning, and contribution.

My advice is be gentle on the transitioning leader. If any transitioning leaders are reading this, then be gentle on yourself. Make peace with letting go, and look forward to creating a great rest of your life!