Leading a team can be a remarkable experience.

You'll learn much about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Hopefully, you'll learn how to inspire and motivate others, and develop needed communication skills. You'll also learn a lot about yourself.

But there's one experience that will allow you to learn even more.

Not leading a team.

That's what Hermann Arnold discovered when he stepped down from the CEO position of the talent management company he co-founded a couple of years ago. Back in 2001, Arnold and his team began the business in a university basement and grew it to a company with a hundred employees, hundreds of corporate customers and partners, and a position as one of the top 10 global providers in its field.

But Arnold couldn't shake a gnawing feeling that had begun to grow. He didn't believe he was the right person to lead the company through its next, and felt his partner, Marc Stoffel, would do a better job. To make sure his successor would have full support from the beginning, Arnold endorsed Stoffel and asked employees to vote on the matter. Stoffel was elected by a great majority.

Arnold took advantage of his newfound freedom to travel to India for three months. Upon return to the company he grew from infancy, he was asked to join a team in hopes he could help solve a few problems.

"It wasn't my intention to go back to an operative role," Arnold explains. "But I wanted to set a good example and took over the job, directly reporting to my successor. That's the literal meaning of stepping down: It's not stepping away. It's stepping  into a team you were leading before."

What did Arnold learn from the experience? A tremendous amount.

Here are just a few of his takeaways:

1. Most of a leader's power comes from his or her role. Not from a great personality or superior skills.

I know what you're thinking, there's a difference between a manager or boss and a true leader. That may be true to an extent, but listen to what Arnold has to say:

"One of the first meetings after the decision to step down, my successor and I was attending a meeting with potential partners. The moment I mentioned that my former team member would become CEO, the whole dynamic in the room changed. They were suddenly talking to him and asking his opinion, when before they were talking to me and asking me."

Takeaway: Arnold himself puts it best: "Stepping down makes us more humble leaders."

As you can imagine, this wasn't an easy experience. But the end result was invaluable.

2. There are different leadership approaches, leading to good or even great results.

Arnold continues:

"This lesson may be obvious, but you have to experience it first hand to really absorb it and learn from it. I have seen my successor in situations that I too was in not so long ago; I knew exactly how I would have handled it. He took a different approach and I was directly affected by his actions. They had different outcomes than I would have had expected."

Takeaway: When we are in a leadership position too long, especially one that is effective, we may become close-minded.

Never forget: There is always more than one way of effectively reaching a goal.

3. Stepping down can allow you to be a much better mentor.

Arnold discovered that his new position left him in a great position to guide his former partner:

"Working on my successor's team, I saw and felt his leadership directly. It wasn't just reading filtered reports. This way, I could provide him honest feedback--especially since I was previously his boss."

Takeaway: To be an effective mentor, you have to give up control.

4. Stepping down will help you personally.

"Once I stepped down, I felt the burden of leadership disappear," Arnold says. "I could breathe and think again. I could develop myself and do a much better job.

"And I feel much more ready to take on my next challenge."

Takeaway: Stepping down, even periodically, does more than help you avoid burnout. It gives you the time you need to work on yourself.

Putting It Into Practice

Personally, I'm a big believer in Arnold's philosophy. The non-profit where I spent 13 years shaping my own professional values practiced regular rotation of its chief executive--and it led to exceptional results.

Are you currently leading a team? Consider stepping down for a while.

It could be the best thing possible--for both you and your company.

Published on: Jan 27, 2016
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