The Leadership in Leaving


By the Numbers

Written by Frances Kunreuther

I am astounded when I read that 10,000 people in the United States turn 65 every day. So I did a little math of my own. There are 1.3 million nonprofit organizations in the United States that have a budget of $25,000 or more.  Recent estimates suggest that over 75% of nonprofit leaders are planning to leave their leadership position in the next 5 to 10 years. Assuming only one leader per organization, that’s 975,000 people contemplating a transition out of their current position, many of whom belong to this Baby Boomer cohort. That is a lot of people who are thinking about their future including when and how they should leave their organization.

The Leadership in Leaving is the second report in our series about the future of long-term nonprofit leadership. This new publication focuses on a concept rarely described in the leadership literature: how leaders, in this case long-term leaders, make a leadership decision about when to leave. That is, how do they assess when it is right for the organization and right for them. Though there are excellent resources on executive transition management, the primary focus is on preparing the organization for one leader’s departure and a new leader’s entrance. The Leadership in Leaving, written with Phyllis Segal of and Stephanie Clohesy of Clohesy Consulting, is based on our extensive interviews with long-term leaders age 50 and older.  It focuses on how these leaders are making decisions about their future with the organizaton. Some have already left their long-term leadership positions and others are still there, but all are aware that leaving means assessing the organization’s future needs, their own interest/skills to take the organization into the future, and their personal readiness to go. One of the people we talked with, who is in his late 60s, explained,

“I am real proud of the organization. When I leave, I want to follow Peter Drucker who defines a good leader as someone who ensures and organization will survive and thrive without me… What will I do when I am not working? I will be freaked out!

This leader is engaging in a comprehensive process of building the capacity of the staff. He is unclear about what is next for himself but he also is planning for his departure. With little guidance, we found each person – though there are thousands – was doing it on their own.  And for each, the decision took time, energy, planning and support.

In our first report, The New Lifecycle of Work: Long-Term Nonprofit Leaders Prepare for the Future, we found that long-term older leaders are looking for a new phase of work and life where they have meaningful work with less responsibility and more flexibility. Now we are taking a step back and asking, what are the leadership tasks in making the decision to leave?

We hope you will read it, send your comments and stories, and help us develop this new field as it is being created  – every day.

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