One of the challenges every leader faces is knowing when it is time to move on. This is relatively straightforward for leaders who fail, or leaders who aren't held in high esteem. They tend to get pushed out. They get hints. It is, however, a problem for leaders who are successful, loved, and esteemed. For them, there are few urging them to move on - even when it's time. These leaders have nothing to go on but their own judgment.
In academia, many still live in the world of tenure, and are guaranteed their positions for many years. I marvel not at those professors who hang on, but at those who appreciate the need to move on--to search for something new, to make room for younger faculty, or who become aware of their own decreased capacity. While I have no data, it seems to me that those who move on the quickest are those who have achieved the most. They are the ones who hold themselves to the highest standards.
One of the most striking examples of a leader stepping down of his or her own volition is relatively recent - that of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. His actions hold a message for all leaders, especially pragmatic leaders who realize that leadership is defined by action and a capacity to get things done. The lesson is simple. As a leader, your responsibility--to your organization, to your cause, and to your vision--is realistic self-monitoring.
You may have been great in your time--and you still may be great--but you need to ask whether you fit the moment. Here's how:
Is my knowledge base static?
If you find yourself more and more out of sync with changing technologies, changing markets, and changing ideas and concepts, then you may have to consider making room for the younger generation.
Is my network expanding?
Leadership is based on your ability to network, make new connections, and find new links. If you find yourself dealing with the same people all the time, then maybe it is time to reconsider your position.
Does the work demand more of you?
This is neither a physical nor intellectual question. Emotionally, are you less engaged with the daily activities necessary to sustain forward movement?
Do you think others around you can do a better job?
Leaders always recognize talent and exceptional people. Few leaders in their prime feel replaceable. But if others around you can do a better job, then maybe you should let them.
Pope Benedict XVI shows us the value of honest self-reflection. Few CEOs, few entrepreneurs, few leaders are more committed to their vision or mission than the Holy Father. If he can recognize the challenges that face the church and have the awareness that he should make room for others, shouldn't leaders at least reflect on his example? This is not to say that everyone needs to copy his behavior, but certainly everyone should have the responsibility to reflect on whether it's time to move on.