Stepping Aside: When To Walk Away As A Leader

When considering whether the time is right for us to step aside or walk away, it's also important to consider the quality of your own life, and your happiness is a sure indicator of figuring that out.

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When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was questioned and challenged during the "Partygate" investigation for his breach of the COVID-19 restrictions and rules he himself had put in place, he was challenged not only by the general public but his own constituency to resign and walk away from his position. However, he chose not to do that, and it stirred up in me the question: "When should one walk away as a leader?"

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Now, I personally believe that Johnson should have resigned, but this article is not to focus on his decision, but to help us all reflect on how we make our own personal choices when we find ourselves in a space of influence (and when we are leading not just ourselves but other people), and how and what we should consider when walking away from that kind of a role.

Like with all things, the importance of context is deeply important in any decisions we make- and in this case, I feel we must always ask two questions: "What is best for me?" and "What is best for others?" One could argue that Boris Johnson made a choice based on what is best for him, but perhaps not what is best for everyone else. And when the rest of us see something like this, it's hard for us to follow someone who doesn't walk the talk, and is a walking contradiction for what they ask of others, and what they ask of themselves.

In unpacking my own thoughts about when I have walked away from things I once led, I hope to be able to give you food for thought when you find yourselves wondering whether it's time for you to step aside from a leadership role. At the end of the day, we need to remember that we all have a duty of care to those who are under our stewardship and guidance. As such, I often reflect on whether my heart is still in something, and I have since realized that the moment I lose my heart or curiosity in something, that is normally a good indicator for me that now is the right time to walk away, and to let someone new take over the baton and responsibility of leadership.

There was a time in my life when I made a painful decision to walk away from my marriage- such moments are never easy, it's certainly not popular, and sadly, innocent people -often children- are left hurt. Now, one could say that anyone who decides to break what was supposed to be a life-long commitment is thinking purely about themselves, and to a certain degree, I think that's true, but in my case, I feel that decision allowed me to become a happier version of myself who, besides being able to be a better and more present father to my child, is also bringing the best of myself to my friends and everything else I do. I believe that at times, what is best for us, and what is best for others can often be connected. For instance, if I am happier, then those around me will benefit greatly from my energy as well.

When considering whether the time is right for us to step aside or walk away, it's also important to consider the quality of your own life, and your happiness is a sure indicator of figuring that out. Doing what you love -and when you want to do it- is the pinnacle of a life of quality. As such, pausing and reflecting on the quality of your life can be found in your motivation. Are you still motivated in the work you do? Are you developing yourself- your mind, and your skills? It's also essential to reflect on the pressure you're feeling, and whether this is making you sick and affecting both your physical and mental health. To find out more about such indicators of when leaders should walk away, I talked to Lynn Howard, an entrepreneurial consultant and strategist. Howard regularly helps entrepreneurs get out of their own way, and also works with them in powers of leadership—here are excerpts from my chat with her:

Lynn Howard, an entrepreneurial consultant and strategist. Source: Lynn Howard

When do you believe leaders should walk away?

In my opinion,iIt needs to be before there is a problem, before you get to these stages, as soon as we see or "know" that we no longer can move the needle for those we lead. My mom used to ask, "Do the good times out-weigh the bad times?" Taking this approach, I would say it's time to move when you have lost the love, that spark that is not coming back- seated in a dull state of mind as a leader is serving no one. It's when you feel like you have nothing else to contribute for the greater good, when you see that your voice, ideas, innovation no longer add value, and when you do not align with the direction, the values, the vision of the role, and those that surround you. It's also when the ones you lead nor longer align, hear, or can be led by you- after all, it is not just about the leader, it is about the people as well. There are so many stages that you should walk away from, and we usually know when this shift happens- it's just that we should choose to listen to it.

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When in a leadership role, what should be considered as the most important reason for walking away- when we consider what's best for ourselves, or when we consider what's best for others?

We often cannot see the forest through the trees. Sometimes, we need to take a step back, evaluate, and see if we are the right person for the role or "job" anymore. We can often get caught up in that we are failing, or that we are abandoning those that depend on us, when in all actuality, we are showing them that a true leader knows when it is his or her time to step to the side, to leave and or resign.

You spoke about divorce earlier, and being a child from divorce as well as one who has divorced, I know that it served my children better to see me (and their father) happy, free from the dynamic that was no longer healthy, shining our lights brighter, because we were able to release what we thought we should be in order to become who we are. The fact that we are divorcing though does not mean we are stepping down as leaders, instead, I believe that we are stepping more into one for our children, especially when we are getting out of a toxic, abusive relationship- this was not my case with my ex, but it was my case with my parents.

Also, I believe there is a difference between a leader and one who leads. Just because you hold a role does not make you a good leader. To me, those that do things for the best interest of the whole, regardless of the positions, are great leaders. So, if you have to step aside, or down, it does not necessarily mean you are no longer a leader; in some cases, I believe it is you being more of a leader.

Can you share a personal experience of when you walked away from a leadership role, and how you came to your decision?

There are so many, which one do I choose! In 2018, I stepped into a global role as COO of a franchise model company, with which I had owned a franchise with for many years prior. I was asked to step into this role by the incoming CEO, to help build a better company culture, to drive us to the next phases, to plug in the missing links of the business side or the franchises, and to support our company and the 26 countries we were in to transition and build more wealth.

After the first few months, I knew it would be a hard battle. There were discrepancies in conversations, promises, agreements, and more just two months into the role. I kept my head down, compromised, and bit my tongue a lot, just so that I could support those that really needed it, i.e. have an impact on the franchises, have them be seen, heard, and supported. While I was very aware of my situation, I consciously making a choice to stay, sometimes on a daily basis, all the while implementing as much as I could.

Fast forward one and a half years, I could not play the part that I had been playing, feeling like a martyr, constantly fighting with the CEO, because we had two very different ways to look at things. We did not align in values, we did not fully align in the vision (we did a lot along the way, but not the path to get there), we were not carrying the load in the right way, and our dynamic was no longer healthy for ourselves and the business. So, I walked away. I also gave back the franchise that I owned. It was like a weight was lifted, I believe, for both of us.

When a leader loses heart in the work they do, do you believe they should walk away from it, or do you have other strategies that can reignite that energy and motivation to keep moving forward?

I was once told that in a relationship, we fall in and out of love, and that the objective is to not fall out of love at the same time. I apply this to business as well. We can lose heart, we can become overwhelmed, we can disconnect; however, it doesn't mean chuck up the deuces and walk. First, take a step back, a breath of fresh air, and then come back to the business with fresh eyes. See where you have lost the love. Are you still aligned with the vision? Are you willing to make the changes that are necessary? If so, make a plan and do it. It can also help to have an outside view, either from a mentor or coach, to help you see the bigger picture, to have a less emotional approach. Most have difficulty separating the emotions from the facts. The facts allow you to make a better decision, and a more concise plan. The emotions are what triggers this stepping back.

Not all challenges and seasons of pain should result in a leader stepping aside- according to you, when should a leader persevere and not walk away?

Sometimes, it is more of a step aside, and not a step away. What I mean by this is, if you have hit the plateau in your business, or feeling out of love with your work, maybe it is time to hire someone to take over the roles you are operating in.

For example, I owned a security company for years. I was not "in love" with my business, but still loved it enough to keep it. So, I hired a sales representative and a manager to run the everyday business, and I was able to step back, support, and encourage the team so that they can have success. The fact was that I did love it, I just did not love certain aspects of it, so I changed my participation in the roles that was draining me, and that I no longer had enough heart in.

I also believe this is a quality a leader should have- bringing others up, supporting them to shine. So, by me stepping aside, bringing in a new leader, it gave our company a new zest for life. I was still able to support and lead, just not in the same role that I was in, but in ways that empowered our new leader, and let them shine. I have seen this be difficult for some, stepping aside, and still "leading," or should I say, micromanaging from the sidelines. We should have faith in the person we have chosen, and allow them to find their way.

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