Do Not Overstay – Further Comments

It is amazing to me how frequently I have a conversation with a colleague or peer and the question comes up about someone we both know:  whether they might be in danger of “overstaying” in their role or responsibility.   Clearly they have been effective, at least for a time.   But, we wonder if they have reached their “best by” date?   And we wonder”  could it be that there is a shelf-life to every administrative role in an organization?   And might it be the case that the limit of two four year terms for the US presidency – that is, a maximum of eight years – would be a good benchmark?   That is, that the “shelf life” for one’s role might be less or it might be more than eight years.  But it will not be much more. 

I can think of so many people who were actually quite effective in their roles and quite effective for a number of years.   But then when it might have been an ideal time to move on and let another move into that role or responsibility, they stayed on – clinging to the role, perhaps, when others clearly thought they were no longer effective, or merely functioning on auto-pilot and no longer truly engaged and leveraging the full potential of the office or role for the institution.   They are coasting; they are no longer carrying their weight.   And in time, sooner than later, they are a block, an impediment to the growth and renewal of the organization. 

They feel, perhaps, a certain entitlement to the office because of their extended service.  Or they are actually honest and do not have anywhere to go if they were to leave.  But, in their minds, no one will ask them to step down.  So, they stay.   And the result is that the institution loses out.   The organization of which they are a part does not have one of its essential ingredients:   the leadership it needs for the next stage of the life or this institution.   

Thus, here is a good rule of thumb:  be the first to know that it is time to move on.   Stay long enough to do what needs to be done; but do not overstay.   Stay through challenges and setbacks, of course; do not run from responsibility just because you feel in over your head.  But, when it is time, it is time. 

Something to consider is that this may not be a matter of whether one has been effective or not.  Very effective leaders bring the organization to a point in its growth and development where now, quite simply, another set of skills are needed to take it from here.   Thus effectiveness in leadership is knowing:  I have brought the organization this far; I need to pass on the baton to another.    No one person has all the talent and skill and wisdom that is needed through each of the iterations of the organization’s life.    And in a very fluid environment, with institutions regularly coming up against new challenges, it is essential – imperative – that leaders do what they can and then graciously step aside so another can “take it from here.”   When we overstay, momentum and energy are lost.   But, not right away; it is often only in retrospect that we come to see that the energy has dissipated and we are only going through the motions of leadership and no more.   It was time to leave – perhaps a while ago. 

So, watch the horizon; leave on your own terms, when it is best for the organization so that there is minimal disruption and an orderly transition.    But, as a rule of thumb, resolve not to overstay.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.