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The longer a leader is in place the tougher the transition is to a new leader. Counterintuitively, it is even tougher when the leader has been seen to have delivered repeatedly.

The heavy responsibilities that were hardly noticed or commented upon become all too vivid once it is announced that the leader is to step down. Those who thought they were more than ready to take over have long departed, figuring they would have to wait far too long for their chance.

The long-standing cohesive team suddenly becomes ruffled, and uncertainty starts to quickly spread. They know that they must step up, all the while, they themselves are unsure of what is next for them. We often find some leaders appear irreplaceable, and it is tough for them to finally accept their time is up – but we often forget about the rollercoaster of emotions the team go through during this time.

It can be risky when the revered leader and team start to separate as uncertainty fills the usually calm atmosphere and speculation becomes rife about what comes next. Naturally, the loss of an important individual creates an unsettled nature, and sometimes a divide emerges between formerly trusting colleagues.

It feels like this year, more than ever, we are seeing the importance of succession. Industries around the world are seeing the hard and unforgiving impact and suffering of leaders walking away, whether it be after long service or just a short painful cameo.

The immediate example for me is Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, which has become a common talking point. Klopp had an amazing managerial career and won the hearts of each player and every fan – his leaving announcement initially struck a fire in his team. Suddenly, Liverpool looked like a different team and were reaching the heights we knew them for under Klopp, but as time went on, and his departure got closer, everybody began to crumble. There was an obvious unsettling feeling amongst players, coaches and even some fans – the thought of losing an important figure became uncomfortable and questions were asked of ‘what’s next?’ and when nobody had the answers, panicking became the only thing that felt normal.

Forgive me for sticking to football, but we saw a remarkably similar instance with Emma Hayes and Chelsea women’s team. Hayes, who is deemed as a Chelsea legend, is stepping away from her duties – once again, the team felt unsettled by the announcement and have unfortunately now lost hopes of the cup winning they are famed for, alongside being knocked out of the Champions League. The success that seemed so common has quickly become unrealistic, and the team can only hope their next leader can live up to the exceedingly lofty expectations.

The common theme with both, and we see it with businesses, is the initial reaction is to give it all for the leader, to give them one last good run as the perfect send off, but when reality creeps closer, the team becomes unsettled and lose focus on the important things at hand.

When we discuss the exits of leaders, there can be a vicious cycle, leaving can spark tension and a fall off for the team, but staying around for too long leads to others getting tired of sticking around. Finding that middle ground is tricky, but the best leaders know when to leave.

At JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon has been a top-quality servant for many years, but his unwillingness to leave has led to his own strong cadre of leaders stepping away and moving on. The best leaders get fed up with waiting around and decide to move on before they waste their potential.

The solution for many would be for Dimon to eventually move on in a ‘managed’ fashion, and allow someone new to take over, but with his departure there’s a guaranteed period of nerves and unsettlement for everyone at JP Morgan. With other leaders leaving, there are constant questions over who will stay and if they are still heading in the right direction.

During our time visiting and working with some incredible leaders, we often give the same advice – avoid following a tough act. Stepping into the shoes of someone who has been seen to be first class for many years is fraught with the danger of forever being compared to the best of the best.

Of course, somebody must take over – but to really gain the trust and belief of the team, you must have a purpose and vision that people can get on board with. When top-quality, long-standing leaders do eventually decide to leave, there is rarely a list of strong potential successors within the team. It takes real courage and foresight to move a solid and successful leader on when it’s right for the organisation, and maybe not appearing that great for the solid and loyal leader – think about the rather sudden announcement of the departure of Noel Quinn at HSBC.

Within a team, you may have the right person for the job – but they need to also be the right person for the team.


Thought for the week:

Look for the leader that is calm, clear, and present.


Tips for becoming an A player:

Surround yourself with people who give you a different view on the world

To be performance driven you must be values led

Push yourself everyday

Forget how to quit – learn to be resilient

Don’t waste your time looking for perfection

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