Leadership Has a Shelf Life

Leaders often stay too long because of the uncertainty of what’s next for them and for the firm. It is hard to do what is in the best interests of the organization and also in one’s best interests. It takes moral courage to leave a safe place when you have been comfortable.

Recently, a friend said to me, “Leadership has a shelf life,” and I have been thinking about that statement ever since. The definition I use for leader is someone in a position to influence the lives of others. Given this definition, leaders are coaches, pastors, parents, professors, politicians, managers…in profit or not-for-profit organizations. Yet, leaders of organizations often don’t engage in succession planning as they should, and individuals struggle with letting go and moving on when they have overstayed their welcome. Knowing when and how to transition is important in order to do what is best for the organization and for the leaders themselves. As this same friend said, “You need to know your expiration date.”

Organizations that have clear succession plans and execute them well are giving the business a gift by preparing for the future. Simultaneously, the leaders are given a gift of being able to intentionally plan for their future. Lately, I have heard several people use the phrase, “he or she stayed too long,” regarding someone who was in a position of influencing their life.

Leaders often stay too long because of the uncertainty of what’s next for them and for the firm. In “The Hero’s Farewell: What Happens When CEOs Retire,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld emphasizes that “work provides more than financial compensation. It provides many of the same functions as family and community—namely, personal identification, group belonging, and a purpose for our efforts.”

Basically, people lose their “platform” or sense of purpose and identity, making it hard to “retire” and move on to something else. So much of our social interaction needs are met by being in a workplace. Leadership “shelf life” is not limited to retiring, but also should be acknowledged when one has lost the “fire in the belly”—the passion and drive to be effective.

Sonnenfeld points out the process for transitioning is similar to the stages of grief associated with death. In transitions, we don’t start something new until we end something, and endings are accompanied by losses related to power, titles, achievements, routines, scheduled events, and status symbols. We can learn a lot from watching professional athletes because they have to deal with leaving their careers much earlier than most professions.


In the process of writing my book, “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ATD, 2013), I interviewed William Bridges, one of the leading experts on transition and author of “The Way of Transition.” He developed a Transition Framework used by leaders in organizations and communities to help make deep change. I also interviewed Barbara Beizer, a transition coach and organizational development consultant. Beizer has been using Bridges’ work for many years in leadership and organizational development in both the private and public sectors. They maintain that many change initiatives are not sustainable because leaders do not understand the significance of transition.

There is a difference between change and transition. While change is an external event, transition is an internal, non-linear process triggered by an event. Change is “fast.” Transition is “slow.” For change to be successful, we have to understand the inner and emotional aspects of transition work such as how to create a culture that supports change, and how to deepen our understanding of change, within our initiatives and ourselves.

Contrary to what we typically think, we don’t resist change (external event)—we resist the process of transition. We resist letting go of the way it was or the way we thought it was. We resist taking on a new identity or embracing the new situation. In the Bridges framework, transition is made up of three stages:

  1. Endings: These often result in sadness, anger, or remorse. We start with endings because we don’t begin something without ending something. We can’t move ahead (as people and as organizations) without leaving something else behind. Something is being lost, and we need to learn to let go. We need to realize people are grieving for what was lost.

  2. The Neutral Zone: This results in fear and confusion. It is not so much that we are afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. It’s like being caught between trapezes—dangling in the neutral zone.

  3. New Beginnings: These feature a mix of confidence over what has been gained, anxiety about what has been lost, and worry about slipping back into old habits.

Interestingly, we don’t mind endings or new beginnings as much as we dread the neutral zone. This explains why people often go from one bad job to another, one bad relationship to another. We don’t take the time in the neutral zone to process, reflect, and learn about why it ended or why the change took place.


When we don’t understand the transition process, change usually fails or is poorly executed. Productivity is often lower and costs are higher. People are apathetic, not engaged, and emotionally drained. The workplace feels dehumanized when people are treated as commodities to dispose or assets to depreciate.

When leaders understand transition, they provide the resources, time, and energy to support people in the process so change efforts are successful. It is critically important for people to understand why the change is taking place. Transition is not always linear. We move back and forth between feelings associated with endings and the neutral zone. Transitions are not automatic. Transitions happen at their own pace. The ending can be painful and the neutral zone confusing, so we may have to be patient and allow time to process the change. Transitions are not always successful. People who are forced to deal with change need support, understanding, and patience.

When we understand our own responses to transition, we are more empathetic in understanding the behaviors of others when times get tough. We need to help people manage endings successfully, navigate the neutral zone, and support new beginnings.


Retirement is an antiquated term. With longer life expectancies, often we are no longer retiring, but moving on to something else. Retirement is a 20th century creation that is not as relevant today when fewer people have jobs that require physical labor, and people are more active and living longer. Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of Encore.org—a nonprofit organization working to promote encore careers—refers to retirement as a transition, not a destination.

It is hard to do what is in the best interests of the organization and also in one’s best interests. It takes moral courage to leave a safe place when you have been comfortable. One metaphor is to think of swinging on vines in a jungle. It is hard to let go of one vine unless you see another vine within reach. Without another vine, we cling as tightly as we can to the current vine.

All too often, we tend to plan for the phases of our life except for the phase after our primary career. For example, we plan how to raise children, particularly in a dual-career family. Once I had the day-care situation figured out, it was time to think about preschool. When I had that covered, it was time to decide on after-school care. Then plan on drivers for high school and help them evaluate their college choices. In other words, planning for the career “what’s next” is just as important as planning for these other phases. And beginnings come with new opportunities for growth, renewal, and learning.

Rather than let your shelf life expire, now is the time to rediscover, redefine, reframe, rethink, refresh, renew, re-career. Baby Boomers are not going to retire as we have come to know it, but we will be moving on. So what do you want to move on to? You can decide if you intentionally take charge of your life.

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and leadership development and change management consultant at The Genysys Group. Her most recent book is “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ATD, 2013). For more information, visit www.thegenysygroup.com and http://www.JannFreed.com.