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Why Don't More Leaders Bow Out Gracefully?

Knowing when and how to relinquish power.

Key points

  • Few leaders relinquish power voluntarily.
  • This is partly because power is addictive.
  • Leaders confuse their role with their personal identity.

New Zealand premier, Jacinda Ardern, was widely praised this week for the graceful way in which she announced her resignation. What made her announcement so notable? And why is it so rare for leaders to relinquish power voluntarily?

“All political lives end in failure.” So wrote far-right British politician, Enoch Powell, in the 1970s. I used to understand this as a statement about the fleeting nature of political power. Specifically, I interpreted it to mean that all politicians eventually lose power and are replaced by rivals. However, these days, I view the phrase a little differently. More than anything else, it reminds me how rare it is for politicians, and indeed leaders of any kind, to bow out gracefully.

There’s something addictive about power that makes it one of the hardest things to give up voluntarily. Power corrupts in all kinds of ways. But perhaps the most common of all is by dulling that most political of senses—the sense of timing. Few are the leaders who see ahead of their rivals that the time has come to make way for others.

In my work as a coach and consultant, I see how easy it is for leaders to confuse their role with their personal identity. Instead of seeing leadership as a responsibility with which they have been entrusted, some begin to treat it as a right accruing to them by virtue of their superiority. It is a short road from here to resisting the transfer of power when the job is done or new energy and perspective are required.

There’s a scene in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings that captures some of what is at stake in relinquishing power. In an intimate moment of kindly mentoring, Bilbo Baggins spies “The One Ring” around the neck of his young cousin and protégé, Frodo, and asks to hold it one more time. When Frodo demurs, Bilbo’s face contorts into a monstrous grimace and his hand reaches out to grab the ring by force. The whole scene lasts a second, and Bilbo soon regains his composure. But it is clear that, despite knowing that his time as ring-bearer has ended, Bilbo is driven by forces beyond his control to grasp at power that is no longer his.

Because it’s so rare for leaders to exit gracefully, it’s especially noticeable when one does. While Jacinda Ardern's popularity has waned from its peak earlier in her two-term premiership, her decision to stand down does not seem to have been motivated by electoral considerations. Instead, it seems to stem from her sense that she can no longer lead with the energy and drive required. As she put it:

After going on six years of some big challenges, I am human… 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.

As in earlier moments in her premiership, many commentators have related her mold-breaking leadership style to her gender. In particular, her readiness to relinquish power is contrasted with the reluctance of men to leave leadership positions voluntarily. As I’ve written, however, there is little evidence that men and women lead differently. And nor should we presume that women tend to exit leadership positions any more gracefully than men do.

Nevertheless, Ardern’s announcement does provide an interesting opportunity to consider how stereotypically feminine and masculine traits can sometimes be combined to model new ways of leading. As Ardern concluded:

I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader—one who knows when it’s time to go.

References

Powell, J. E. (1977). Joseph Chamberlain. London: Thames and Hudson.‏

De Vries, M. F. K. (1991). Whatever happened to the philosopher‐king? The leader's addiction to Power. Journal of Management Studies, 28(4), 339-351.

Ratcliff, N. J., & Vescio, T. K. (2013). Benevolently bowing out: the influence of self-construals and leadership performance on the willful relinquishing of power. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(6), 978-983.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/19/from-stardust-to-an-empty-tank-one-of-a-kind-leader-jacinda-ardern-knew-her-time-was-up

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