Too often long-term leaders connect their personal identity and worth to their role or title. Giving up that role feels more like death than freedom. As a result, younger leaders are often blocked from leadership roles they are well equipped to take on and older leaders miss out on the joy of equipping others and doing what they enjoy the most.
In the book The Making of a Leader, Bobby Clinton writes that younger leaders have the energy and margin to explore multiple roles, do a variety of activities, and try out various areas of interest. By midlife, there is a time of convergence. What is more important in the convergence phase is to focus not just on the good, but the very best. To be able to do the very BEST things that fit a leader’s call, giftedness and passion, they have to say “yes” to what they must do, and say “no” to the GOOD things that they could do. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, describes this process well when he writes: “Every time you add one item to your ‘To Do’ list, you have to add three items to your ‘To Stop’ list.”
This might be called a time of transition from the Stage-to-Sage phase. Before, the leader is on the stage, and serves as the key go-to person for leadership and final authority for the biggest decisions. Especially as the founder of an organization, the leader is the keeper of the vision and protector of the values and they often serve for years in an almost indispensable role. Without them, the organization would fail or drift.
During this phase, it is the responsibility of the leader to build a host of other keepers of the vision and protectors of the values so that their successor walks into a role supported by the whole culture and team. Yet, there is rarely a perfect time to make the transition when all is perfectly in order. And as the world changes fast, sometimes a younger leader is actually more in touch with the strategies needed to face the new opportunities and challenges.
What older leaders sometime miss is that while younger leaders may have better strategies and more energy to implement new initiatives, they often don’t have the confidence, pattern recognition, and emotional intelligence of someone who has spent years leading, relating, praying, and seeing God provide miracle after miracle in their own life and the life of the organization. Just when the older leader begins to feel useless in their former role of strategist, it is the perfect time when they are most useful in a rare and much more needed role of the sage.
How does an older leader make this transition well? Below are some thoughts I’ve collected from those who have done it well:
- Remember there is rarely a perfect time to hand over the leadership reins and it is good for the younger leader to face challenges you did not solve for them. The most important areas on which to focus are having a governance board in place who can make corrections if needed, a funding margin, and organizational values that are not just words, but are embedded in the stories of the team. End with a big celebration of both yourself and the new leader so there is no turning back.
- Take some time to detox. Years of hard work often mean your body is used to daily adrenaline highs, and your ego is enmeshed with things that in a few months will seem silly, but at the moment feel like life. Vent to neutral people who listen but will remain confidential. Embrace the natural sadness. Do things you never had time for before but you always wanted to do. Change location and routines. Don’t commit to something new until you get through what William Bridges calls the “The Neutral Phase,” which is a time of confusion and scrambling for new meaning.
- Start redefining your personal Iife’s mission and calling in a way that is not connected to your previous organization. Relook at your gifts and passions. Bring in long-term friends who know you, listen well and pray much. Get excited about the freedom to not have to worry about schedules, meetings, fundraising, administrative tasks, mediating conflicts and answering urgent emails.
- When you are OK with not having a role in your former organization, then you are ready to explore that option. Listen well to the new leader. Don’t offer any strategies unless they ask multiple times. Be encouraging. Mirror back to them what you hear in their heart. Be a friend. Your ability to release your former identity is the very thing that makes you a safe advisor and sage.
- Pursue a life outside of your advisor role. Be an advisor and sage to leaders not in your former organization. Create new daily, weekly and monthly rhythms that you choose and enjoy.