The Washington Post Leadership site recently posed a question:
When he died [earlier this summer], Robert Byrd, who was a frail 92, had represented West Virginia in the Senate for more than 50 years. Is it generally a good idea for top leaders in any sector to serve that long, or that late in life? Given the common instinct to hang on, should limits be imposed?
Thinking about this definitely creates a tough inner dialogue. For some leaders, their lifetime of experience makes them worth their weight in gold. They also deserve respect for the time they have dedicated to the organization and the insight they provide. Previously weathering an organization’s ups and downs offers reassurance to younger, less experienced workers who may doubt job security or who are unsure of the future. Older and more experienced team members can also offer counseling in times of stress, direction when there is none, or reassurance that no matter what happens in the office, life will go on.
On the other hand, keeping a “lame duck” leader doesn’t benefit anyone. Especially old or frail leaders may be easily manipulated, or they may be unable to handle the tasks assigned to them, leading to resentment and inner-office turmoil. They may be unable to actually lead their subordinates, who may feel lost or forgotten by their superiors. Without a leader, the organization will become less and less productive and innovative.
George Washington addressed this situation when he declined a third term in office, favoring new blood instead of a constant single leader. Granted, most organizations are not under the sort of peril the young United States was during this time, but ushering in a new set of eyes, ideas, and talents can benefit an organization. What would George say about the late Sen. Robert Byrd? Would he disapprove of such a long term, or would the circumstances call for a different evaluation where length could be beneficial?
The pros and cons of an “aging leader” leave us with one slightly uncomfortable option: Leaders must be evaluated on an individual basis. In this evaluation, they must be compared to the same standard as all other employees. This allows those still-functioning leaders to continue their work, while ensures that those who may be slipping in their duties are made aware of their weaknesses.
It takes a strong and dedicated leader to know when they should retire their post to the next generation. It shouldn’t be difficult to pass the baton—everyone grows older, and age is something that we can’t escape. Yet many leaders still hang on to their positions for too long, hurting their subordinates and coworkers.
So why don’t we all endeavor to become aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, and pledge to identify when we too have become “aged leaders?” It’s going to happen; we just need to be able to identify it. This ensures the best for our organization and for us, the guarantee of leaving on a high note, and best yet, possibly an earlier retirement.