Many leaders remain in power unless a clear mistake derails their tenure. Yet, many leaders also struggle with remaining fully committed to the challenges of leadership. They owe it to themselves, and to their organizations, to honestly determine when their particular role as leader has run its course and to take action.
Here are six patterns that signal it is time to move on.
You can’t or won't fire your friends.
This is most prevalent in start-ups, family-owned businesses, or closely held companies. A group of co-founders may select one member to become CEO, and over time that person may not be able to replace colleagues who are ill-suited to their growing roles. In a family-run business, hiring and promotions are used as tools to maintain family harmony, or to appease a relative who has invested capital.
An extreme case is News Corporation, founded and ruled by Rupert Murdoch. He dares shareholders to sell if they object to his preference for running the company as if he were presiding over a raucous dining-room table filled with his children and assorted flatterers.
You don’t need to run a global media empire to fall into this trap. If you can’t do what is best for the shared purpose by making realistic, objective, and discerning decisions about hiring, promoting, reassigning, and even firing those closest to you, you are not fit to lead.
Even if you are unaware of this blind spot, others in the company will see your behavior for what it is: favoritism, fickleness, or careless leadership.
You disengage from responsibilities or the peripheries of your organization.
Every leader prefers certain responsibilities over others, and sometimes it can be easy for a leader to turn a blind eye to the unpleasant tasks in favor of more appealing activities. But consider the cost of not leading the whole organization.
Have you stopped looking into the peripheral corners of your role? Are you deflecting difficult discussions or confrontations with a direct report, team, partner, or customer?
Leadership requires embracing whole situations, not selective components. The organization may need you to confront the exact person or thing you are avoiding. If you can’t do it, the organization needs someone who will.
You believe you are indispensable.
A leader who is “indispensable” is presiding over an organization incapable of looking after itself. An indispensable leader has enabled the highest form of organization dependency and dysfunction. That is not something to brag about. If you believe you are irreplaceable, you should examine exactly what kind of work you have been engaged in and consider replacing yourself.
Your inner circle stops telling you the truth…because you stop asking.
Leading inside a bubble is a common and dangerous dynamic. The human tendency is to automatically believe in our own positions, abilities, and decisions, and to rely too heavily on our own point of view. Leaders need to press others to provide contrary perspectives. This only happens when a leader insists upon it and provides a safe environment to voice dissenting opinions.
As a leader, if you don’t challenge others to challenge you, the odds are that they won’t. If you stop asking others to tell you the truth, they will simply tell you what you want to hear.
You do not take responsibility for negative actions of the company.
Rupert Murdoch, again, proves useful. At the height of the London phone-hacking scandal involving one of his newspapers, Murdoch was asked by a government committee whether he was ultimately accountable for those in his employ. He said no; those who engaged in the dubious conduct bore sole responsibility, and it had little to do with him.
While empirically true (after all, we are each responsible for our actions), Murdoch missed the invaluable point. A leader must take the final blame in bad times, because he is looked to as the guiding force during good times. Not even Murdoch can have it both ways. If you are unable to take all of the responsibility, it is time for someone who will.
You fail the middle-of-the-night test.
In the middle of the night when you wake up to go to the bathroom, take a quick look in the mirror. At that moment, no one cares about your job title, your wealth, or your accomplishments.
In the darkness and quiet, you will glimpse your leadership in the reflection because you will see yourself in vulnerable solitude. What does the reflection say?
That you are earnestly striving to learn, grow, and be worthy of leadership? Or that your heart is not in the journey and that it is time to move on?
Life is too short to ignore either answer. So act.