Continue the Mission: How to Exit Gracefully (and Why You Should)

Posted on Posted in Practical Leadership

Leadership to me means duty, honor, country. It means character, and it means listening from time to time. -George W. Bush

This month, I continue my series on successful leadership transition. If you missed the first part, you can go back and read it here. When we accept a leadership position we accept two things: (1) stewardship of the people and organization we’re leading, and (2) the understanding that we’ll be replaced some day. Regardless of the reason we may be handing off the reins to a successor–good or bad–how we manage that transition says a great deal about us as people and leaders.

Leadership transition is far more than just “exchanging salutes” and reporting to your new office. A successful transition of leadership depends on a servant leadership mentality and maturity. The principles below are my guide for a smooth transition of leadership. As I wrote last month, good transition planning begins well in advance of the actual day. In fact, successful transitions occur because of the prep work done well before the “new guy” shows up.

Five Principles for Success

Below principles to keep in mind for the outgoing leader. Adhering to them is the best way to prepare the team and the organization for success under the incoming leader.

  • Prepare the Team for the New Guy’s Style. You may be the best leader ever, but when you hand over the reins of command to another leader, his style is the most important one. Give your staff the benefit of helping them understand the “new guy’s” style and if you can make adjustments to accommodate him or her before you leave, so much the better. Your goal should be to make a difficult time as smooth as possible. Be sure to spend some energy with the senior staff to prepare them for the change.
  • Leave a Trail of Breadcrumbs on Your Decisions. While any leader should be prepared for their decisions to be reversed by their successor, we can maximize the chances good decisions remain in place by documenting our decisions well. That’s what I mean by “leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.” If your successor understands the context of your decisions, and has access to much the same information, it makes it more likely good decisions remain. If there must be a change, then there’s enough data to make solid adjustments. Many a time I’ve avoided a bad decision by understanding why what I wanted to change was done in the first place–you owe that to your successor.
  • Plan for Overlap “Right Seat-Left Seat” Time. For any transition, planning for a few days of overlap is crucial to success. Use that time where the incoming leader (“Right Seat”) shadows the departing leader to learn the staff and see how things are run (“Left Seat”). When the incoming leader moves to the “Left Seat” she’ll be thoroughly prepared and will know what adjustments she needs to make.
  • Don’t Bad Mouth the “New Guy” or the Old Company. I can’t understate how important this principle is to a successful transition. If you and the incoming leader get along famously, great! If not, keep it to yourself. You’ll do great harm to everyone–including your reputation–by disparaging the “new guy.” Believe me, no matter whether he’s a “saint” or “sinner”, your people will make up their own minds about the new leader soon enough. They don’t need your help. When you’ve moved on to other things, keep your words positive. What you say about the guy who replaced you or the company says more about you than them. Even if you’re the only one, be the adult in the room.
  • Say Your Goodbyes and Then Take Your Leave. Once you’ve moved out of the proverbial “Left Seat”, then get going. Hanging around makes it awkward on everyone. This requires a little planning, you really don’t want to be walking back into the building the day after those tearful goodbyes to return your security badge.

Mature Leaders Do Transition Well

Remember leadership is never about you. Leadership is always about those you lead and serve. Leaders who understand that principle first will be the ones who leave a place better than they found it. That’s a successful leadership transition.

Originally posted on General Leadership


Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and GeneralLeadership.com.

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