Enough Already: Don’t be a Clingy Leader

Shaista E. Khilji
4 min readSep 12, 2023
Scrabble pieces lining up to read: Enough Alreday.

Stepping down gracefully is an art few leaders consider seriously. If you want to be remembered for your achievements and admired even after your departure, learn to move on when the timing is right.

In my short-lived leadership career, I was hyper-aware of not extending my welcome. As a result, I stepped down from both of my leadership positions at the peak moments (2021- 2022)- when I was at the top of my performance. This surprised everyone around me. I was repeatedly asked to reconsider my decision. In response, I just smiled and remained thankful but also adamant. I was at peace because I had a good run. I built a new program from scratch with robust enrollment and cutting-edge content. And in my second role as a faculty leader, I contributed to shared governance- negotiating with the trustees and administration to advocate for a more meaningful faculty role in institutional decision-making. I had earned the respect of my colleagues and students.

The truth is also that I was exhausted and disillusioned by internal politics and empty posturing. Leading by no means is an easy endeavor in today’s unsettling times because of the contested nature of organizations and persistent resource constraints. I learned that, over time, leadership wears you out, and when it does, you need to step back graciously to make room for someone else and recuperate to search for something new.

Hence, when in Jan 2023, New Zealand’s former Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced she was stepping down- it made perfect sense to me.

She said, “The responsibility is to know when you are the right person to lead and when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”

Soon after, former Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced that she would resign as Social Democrat party leader. She, too, recognized it was time to step back and make room for someone else.

Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued (as reported by NPR),

“It’s particularly hard to imagine a politician resigning in the U.S. as Ardern did: likely to win re-election and still being respected globally.”

I agree with Kurlantzick that other politicians and leaders need to learn from Ardern and Marin. They need to recognize the limits of their capacities and put the interests of their organizations and constituents first.

Consider Diana Feinstein. At age 90 years, she is the longest-serving female senator in the history of the US Senate. She has experienced serious health problems and media reports of significant cognitive declines. However, she is unwilling to entertain the idea of leaving the Senate. Nancy Pelosi, who has been in the Senate for 35 years, announced that she would seek re-election in 2024. Mitch McConnell, aged 81, froze up on the camera twice recently after some health concerns. He, too, refuses to be replaced. And then there is Kevin McCarthy, who endured a dramatic series of events on the House floor over several days to be sworn in as the House speaker after a historic round of 15 votes. The House drama is far from over as he faces a storm of competing demands in his speaker role. These politicians have had illustrious careers and made lasting contributions to their parties. Hence, it baffles me- Why do they still cling on?

The Economist reports that American corporate leaders are also hanging around for longer. According to MyLogIQ, by the end of 2022, 101 S&P 500 CEOs had been in office for over a decade. Ten years ago, this number was 36. These long-serving CEOs have pushed the average tenure of corporate CEOs from 6 to 7 years. Although their tenure is significantly less than that of old-timer senators, it indicates leaders are increasingly reluctant to relinquish control and power. The Economist reports many of them (for example, Jeff Bezos) are lingering around as Executive Chairs even after stepping down as CEOs.

These are only a few notable examples. Unfortunately, there are plenty of clingy leaders around us. I am sure we have all met or worked with their likes.

I am generalizing here, but my experience with clingy leaders tells me that they actively seek leadership and worship power. They manipulate situations and people to retain their positional power. They are more likely to compromise basic morals for personal gain. They are also unaware of their demoralizing and toxic impact on others and the state of inertia they create in organizations. They are also why so many capable people are reluctant or unable to lead.

Exit is inevitable, one way or the other. Robert I. Sutton, in “Stepping down gracefully,” makes a case that how you handle yourself when in power and how you leave impacts how you are remembered.

So, if you want to be remembered with fondness and not fury and truly admired even after your departure, take a bow before circumstances force you to bow. Know that we are humans, and we all have limits. Recognize when your tank feels empty; it is empty, and people can sense that, too. That is the most suitable time to move on gracefully.

Shaista E. Khilji

Sept 12, 2023, Potomac, MD

--

--

Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.