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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Psychodynamics of Leadership Exits

The ending of a leader's tenure stirs up complex dynamics in both leaders and followers and in their interactions. The topic of leadership exit accounts for a tiny fraction of the writings on entry and mid-tenure leadership challenges, suggesting a collective avoidance of thinking, experimenting and even writing about endings (Gilmore and Austin, 1993; Sonnenfeld, 1988; Gilmore, 2000, Schall, 1997).Yet endings matter. When leaders leave abruptly without adequate containment or working through of relationships and learnings, the organization often loses significant knowledge and relationships that are resources for the mission. The O-rings problem with the Challenger was on the agenda of several executives of NASA who left at the same time and the issue did not get handed off to the appropriate incoming leader. (Gilmore, 1988, 11-12). We know the critical importance of network relationships with key stakeholders externally (Burt, 1992), yet often we act as if all of these relationships have been institutionalized rather than held personally by the outgoing leader and thoughtfully handed over to an incoming leader or someone on the existing staff.The work of leadership exit does not begin only when the leader is deciding to exit. It is a stance throughout the leader's tenure in helping people to take the leader in deeply such that, without the leader's actual presence, there is a continued source of guidance. When Martin Luther King said, 'I have a dream ... I may not get there with you,' he set forth the possibility that he may not be the one guiding the people toward this 'dream' he had conceived and called others to join. At a meeting of all his former clerks, Judge Lasker, an influential federal judge, took stock of the issues he had spent his life addressing, flagged the major undone agendas and 'charged them' to continue working on a set of key issues. These are important conversations too rarely held that help followers interject the leader as an ongoing source of guidance even when they are no longer present.