Take a bow! Boundaries are important in leadership transitions

Posted On: Tuesday, 22 August 2023

Why ‘leaving the stage while the audience is still clapping’ is important 
When Joe Plenzler began his work at the Pentagon as a public affairs officer to the commandant of the U.S. Marines, he reached out to a mentor who had served in the same capacity for a Marine Corps general. 

That mentor, he says, had been a lieutenant colonel whose abilities put her on track to becoming a colonel and a brigadier general. But she retired before reaching those ranks. Plenzler asked her why. 

Her answer offers lessons about the importance of recognizing when it’s time to step aside as a leader and then honoring the transition to new governance. Plenzler says she explained her decision to retire in this way: 

“I believe in leaving the stage while the audience is still clapping.”

Plenzler now is a partner at Cassandra-Helenus Partners, a Washington, D.C.-area leadership development and executive coaching firm he co-founded. The Marine veteran recommends that others follow the lead of his mentor whose advice he sought out more than a decade ago. In a text conversation, he noted the wisdom of understanding how far a leader can take a group and when it’s time to move on. 

It’s wisdom that applies to leaders ranging from chief executive officers for large corporations to local officers of charitable organizations like the American Legion Auxiliary: Know when it’s time to go. And when you go, let others steer the ship.

So, what do you do if you’re an ALA unit officer struggling with handing over the reins to new leaders? And if you’re one of those new leaders, how do you ensure that the work transitions to you, giving you and other members the freedom to coordinate plans and activities as you see fit?

Plenzler says it comes down to two issues:

• understanding the reasons that could drive a leader’s reluctance to step aside
• having an organizational system and expectations that guide leadership transitions

Groups that don’t account for these issues risk leadership problems that drive members away. In the case of the ALA, that could lead to an exodus to other units or organizations. It could also lead to members dropping out altogether. 

Help your ALA unit avoid these fates by ensuring that your own leaders leave while the audience is still clapping. Follow these tips to ensure the timely transition of responsibilities:

Examine your mindset. Our national culture, which Plenzler describes as “live-to-work,” often is at the heart of leaders’ reluctance to step down. “I can completely understand the fears associated with letting go — loss of status and relatedness,” he says. But leaders should look beyond that tendency, carefully considering whether they’ve reached their limit in their leadership roles and if a changing of the guard would benefit the group.

Embrace lifelong learning. Whether you’re a leader who’s moving on or a member who’s stepping into a new role, understand that this new path represents an opportunity to try something new. For former leaders, that might mean assuming the role of a mentor to their successors. For those who replace them, it can mean showing a willingness to expand their responsibilities and make their own mark. In fact, Plenzler says he has a friend who insists that it’s important for people to move to new roles as soon as they’ve mastered the one they have.

Monitor your culture. In a 2019 Entrepreneur magazine article, John Rampton, founder of the productivity tool Calendar, says a toxic culture might be an indicator of leadership that’s worn out its welcome. It’s a leader’s responsibility to ensure a positive environment, so it’s important to take note of any spikes in membership losses or behaviors like gossip and bullying — and then take a hard look at whether they are related to concerns about the group’s direction.

Take pre-emptive steps. Establish an environment that defines leadership as a limited-time position to relinquish when appropriate for the good of the group. For leaders, “it should be the norm that, when their term is up, they should fully support the efforts of the new leadership team and help them in the way they want to be helped,” Plenzler says. “If a former leader can’t do that, it’s best for them to leave the organization.”

ALA Mission

In the spirit of Service, Not Self, the mission of the American Legion Auxiliary is to support The American Legion and to honor the sacrifice of those who serve by enhancing the lives of our veterans, military, and their families, both at home and abroad. For God and Country, we advocate for veterans, educate our citizens, mentor youth, and promote patriotism, good citizenship, peace and security.