Gen. Douglas MacArthur brought relevance to this stanza taken from a British soldier’s folklore song on April 19, 1951. MacArthur, relieved of his command in Korea just days before by President Harry Truman, returned to the United States and addressed Congress’s joint session. MacArthur’s speech focused on the Communist China threat posed in the Pacific Rim, specifically Korea, and the actions he believed necessary to check their advance. These actions were contrary to President Truman’s stance.
In the last paragraph of MacArthur’s speech, he reflected on his service to the country…a Medal of Honor recipient and one of the very few five-star flag officers in our history…and he recited the famous refrain from the ballad. Then he concluded, “And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.”
We all live by a universal axiom. There is a beginning and ending to life, and along the way, we revel on the peaks and wallow in the valleys. This life pattern is true for leaders too. Today, you may be aspiring, emerging, or leading; however, that will end, either voluntarily or by compulsion. The uncertainty, if you let it, lies with when.
Many of us admire franchise quarterbacks when they choose to leave on their terms; they decide “when.” On their departure, we comment, they gave us several years of excitement and thrills, and they’re going out at the top of their game. Yet many don’t, and we shake our head at them in disbelief. They choose to delay the inevitable and hang around for one more season, even though they know their skills have degraded, and their performance is jeopardizing the team’s success. Soon, they find themselves sitting on the bench, one-deep, then maybe two-deep, as the backup to the backup quarterback. Their “when” passed, and now by compulsion, they’re out.
We see this same resistance to leaving a leadership position in organizations: government, public, private and nonprofit. For example, Congress’s hallowed halls are plump with members serving decades, roosting first in the House of Representatives, then migrating to the Senate. Many institutions, federal, state, city, religious, publicly and privately held companies, continue to be led by multi-decade founders, bishops, presidents, chief executive officers, executive directors and general managers. So, when does becoming long in serving as a leader become too long? When is it optimum to move from a leader to a leader’s gray-hair advisor?
Consider these red-flag warnings as indicators that it may be time to relinquish your leadership: when your focus changes to preserving your power rather than developing other leaders to assume control; when you spend more time communicating your accomplishments rather than encouraging your team to achieve the subsequent exponential growth goals; when it’s easier for you to say no to confronting a new challenge rather than empowering your team to embrace the dynamic environment and change; when you dread your followers’ toiling rather than celebrating their progress; when you ignore team member comments rather than finding out what motivates them; when you see vital associates leaving your team, rather than them recruiting new members to join; and, when you discourage, rather than inspire your followers.
Being a leader means acting on leaving when it’s optimum for the development of your organization. If you see any of these red flags, it’s time to assess your value to the team. Organizations should have a succession plan, and within the plan, document how leaders progress through and transition out of the organization. If you decide to leave, continue to serve by becoming a gray-hair advisor and sharing your knowledge and experiences, which brought you success and failure. Be generous with your time, listen twice as much as you speak, and when you talk, be purposeful and inspirational in your message. This is what a leader does.
Gen. MacArthur, considered by many one of the most outstanding leaders of the century, did not depart on his terms. He didn’t choose “when,” President Truman did. Although MacArthur’s impact has faded, his leadership continues to be studied worldwide through books such as his 1978 biography, “The American Caesar,” written by William Manchester. Knowing when to pass the leadership torch and then acting by transferring power is what defines exceptional leaders. We all live by the universal axiom; there are beginnings and endings.
How impactful your leadership is to an organization determines how long your fade will be once you depart. This is how you lead, think, plan and act! Now let’s get after it.
Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions.