Starting Well; Ending Well: the importance of a good conclusion [Part 2 of 2]

As noted last week, it is fruitful to use the drama of the US election and the presidential transition as a case study in good beginnings and good conclusions – in that both are happening at once:   we can ask whether president-elect Biden is doing a good job of assuming a new responsibility and we can ask if president Trump is concluding well.    Last week I focused on the good beginning; and today, consider the importance of ending well. 

I have had fun insisting among my friends and colleagues that going forward all students at Ambrose University will learn the art of the “concession speech”, given that it is rather obvious that this is a missing skill or capacity in our day! – all tongue in cheek.   And yet, there is of course an element of truth to this; what it speaks to, in part, is the need for humility, grace and a commitment to the greater good that needs to shape the way that we leave the organizations in which we have served.   This will happen for all of us; none of us are in our roles indefinitely; we are only caring this responsibility “pro tem”, for the time being, for this season in the life of this organization.   And our departure is one of the key indicators that we care more about the organization than we care about ourselves – that it is not ultimately about us or our egos, but about the organization.  And, further, that because of this, we leave well in a way that encourages and assures the effectiveness of our successor. 

This applies whether or not we are leaving our post willingly – whether we want to move on or not.   Few exemplified this more beautifully than George W. Bush.  In these days I am also reading Barak Obama’s memoir from his first term as US president and he writes eloquently about how Bush – out of “respect for the institution,” “lessons from his father”, or “just basic decency” – did “all he could to make the eleven weeks between [Obama’s] election and his departure go smoothly.”  And he was a model for Obama who resolved that in a similar manner he would treat his successor in the same way. 

We will transition between jobs or assignments; we will at some point move into a post-career retirement mode.   Sometimes we will leave having felt that we did good work and can leave content that we made a positive contribution; sometimes, we will leave feeling everything from betrayal to a lack of appreciation or gratitude for what we have contributed.   We will sometimes leave out the front door with a happy farewell and blessing; and at other times, we will slip out the back door – not in shame, but rather because the circumstances of our departure mean that it is simply easier for one and all if we leave quietly.  Regardless, here are some working principles that can guide us towards a “good ending” – leaving well, on the assumption that as important as anything in our work is that we start well [the focus for last week’s posting] and conclude well.  As you tend to your departure – your leaving:  

  • Let go of the need for high affirmation and praise – for the need to have your ego stroked; as a rule, regardless of the time of departure, it is best to look elsewhere for affirmation and confirmation that you are doing and have been doing a good job and that you have made a noteworthy contribution.  Realize that organizations move on so very quickly; your departure will be much like pulling a finger out of the water – it is amazing how quickly the water resettles, how easily those within the organization make the transition to a new chapter.  And this is a good thing; they need to move on.
  • Provide all the information you can to help your successor move into the job with background perspective, files that are up to date, a clean and clear desk and even a word of blessing [thinking here of the famous letter the George H. W. Bush wrote for Bill Clinton, his successor].
  • Stay away and out of sight – for at least a year.       When I left Union Church of Manila, this was easy; I was heading to the other side of the Pacific.  When I left Regent College, for a whole year, I did not even step on to the campus.   The Presbyterian Church USA actually makes this a matter of policy:  outgoing or retiring pastors are not allowed to worship at or attend an event or even be on the site of the church where they pastored, for one complete year and even then, they are asked to only come back if they have an invitation from their successor.    George W. Bush was silent and out of the limelight for more than a year after his departure from the US presidency, though apparently always ready to receive a call from his successor for background or advice or perspective that Obama was facing.   The Presbyterian policy might seem a bit harsh and yet it is so important that we not muddy the waters for our successor. 

As noted, all of this is because our own egos and emotional needs are secondary; the crucial and important thing is the well being of the organization that we have served.   And this means we learn the grace of leaving well.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.