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All In or All Gone—Leaving Well When It's Time to Go

After 20 years in the first chair, I decided it was time for me to step down as the leader of our international ministry. I asked the board to start the process of finding my replacement. This was one of the hardest decisions of my career, but a good one. The number one issue for me was passion. My heart was no longer engaged in my job—the fire had gone out. My heart had left the building.

Over the years of a long-term leadership assignment, we can subtly morph from passion to paralysis. A calling we once loved and thrived on becomes routine and even boring. Things that jazzed us in our 30s weary us in our 50s. It came to a head for me one day in my garage at home. I was going on a walk and put on my favorite “Life Is Good” baseball cap. Inside is sewn their slogan, “Do what you like, like what you do.” I said to myself, “I am doing neither.” It was time for a change.

Matters of the heart are the biggest issues when contemplating career changes. But is it so hard to follow our heart when it means giving up position, power, prestige and a guaranteed paycheck. I appreciate my board of directors who treated me with dignity in my last months. They did not cast me upon the heap of used up leaders. They honored me for all the blood, sweat and tears I gave them for 20 years. I have so many friends who have not been so fortunate. Once they verbalized to their boards that they might be thinking of moving on—whoosh, the board turned on them and everything changed. Why is it that boards put so much energy into helping new leaders launch well, but are so abrupt and callous when it is time to help those same leaders finish well?

When it comes to leading at the top, we have to be all in or all gone. One of my own senior leaders pulled me aside one day and said, “Hans, we need a 100 percent leader. You need to be all in or all gone. There is just too much at stake.” It took a lot of guts for him to say that to me, but he was right. We leaders need to move on when our passion has left the building. That man saw it in me and had the courage to call it out. It is not fair to the ministry or the team to hang on for the wrong reasons. It’s better to leave too soon than to stay too long. Tentative leadership kills the momentum of the whole ministry.

I realized that my final act of good leadership at that assignment was to leave well. I began to practice what I call “leading to leave.” We don’t lead to stay forever. No one is indispensible. Sooner or later, we have to lay aside our positions. We should be developing those leaders who will come after us. It is a crime to hang on past the bitter end at all costs. Leading to stay is a formula for a train wreck. We have all seen the battles in churches and ministries over senior leaders who overstay their welcome. Sadly, it gets very ugly.

In ministry, we seem to be great at helping leaders start, but not so good at helping them finish well. Starting a new leadership assignment is the easy part. Everyone loves the excitement of a fresh new leader. I remember those days myself when I was assigned to lead our ministry as president of our international nonprofit ministry. I came in gushing youthful vision, passion and enthused expectancy. The board rolled out the red carpet for me—“You want it, you got it! Anything to help you succeed.” But what happens at the other end? Boards should see this exit transition as their final act of serving the leader that led them faithfully.

Leading to leave is about a spirit of humility and knowing that we are replaceable. And it is about developing future leaders around us. Every Paul needs a Timothy. God gave us our position of leadership, and He will take it away someday. When I did leave, my board had a good pool of younger leaders to choose from right within our leadership team.

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Dr. Hans Finzel is a successful author, speaker, teacher and leader. He has written eight books, including his bestseller The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. His books have been translated into over twenty foreign languages. Today he serves as president of HDLeaders and is chief leadership guru on "The Leadership Answerman" podcast.