Leader Fatigue: Making the Difficult Choice to Move On

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jeffrey Pfeffer for Harvard Business Review‘s “The Conversation” series. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

*     *     *

Recently  when Cathleen Black resigned after just three months as New York City’s schools Chancellor, many influential New Yorkers decided that the way to analyze the event was as evidence of their mayor’s stumbling.

That’s quite a turn of interpretation for a man who, for several years, seemed to be able to do no wrong. Not that long ago, Michael Bloomberg was being talked about widely as a post-partisan presidential possibility. The fact that the bloom is now off the rose, and constituents are said to be tiring of him, offers an important lesson in power for all of us.

Let’s start by observing the obvious: that anyone who wields great power is bound to rub some people the wrong way, and those disaffected people accumulate over time. They also tend to have longer memories. As Dan Julius, a senior academic administrator now in the University of Alaska system told me years ago, “the things you did that upset people and create enmity live on much longer than what you did that people liked and created supporters.” Thus, the goodwill Bloomberg earned during the successful tenure of former schools chancellor Joel Klein, and for the many things he has done to make New York more economically vibrant and livable, is rapidly degrading. People are already forgetting how he took on budget problems inherited from his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, and helped the city successfully live within its means. Accomplishments seem to have a shorter half-life — at least in people’s memories — than animosities.
This is one reason that leaders need to be “repotted” after a long tenure, believed Ernie Arbuckle, the Stanford Business School dean who did much to put the school on its successful trajectory. He noted that it becomes harder to get things done as resentments build and people get tired of you. Arbuckle stayed as dean for 10 years, then left to become chairman of the board of Wells Fargo for ten years, and after that, chairman of Saga Foods, also for ten years. (It will not surprise you to hear that he thought the right moment to “repot” was after ten years.) But he didn’t see it as only a problem of perception. He also thought that, after a while in a given position, one’s ability to see new challenges and opportunities clearly diminishes.

The problem is that most people, having attained a position of power, are reluctant to leave it and venture into new territory. Often, having racked up accomplishments and seen them celebrated, they are fired up by the possibility that, with a little more time, they could do more. In some cases, they cling to office because their age suggests they will not go on to scale any greater heights. Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld described this phenomenon in his decades-old book, The Hero’s Farewell.

In it Sonnenfeld noted that while some aging CEOs exited gracefully while they still enjoyed wide acclaim, many hung on too long, reluctant to face their own mortality. There was William Paley, the titan of CBS, who challenged his biographer by asking just why he had to die. And there was Armand Hammer, CEO of Occidental Petroleum, who put in place a long-term incentive plan for himself with a ten-year payout horizon — when he was in his 90s. Few executives or political leaders are as wise as UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, who retired after winning his tenth championship — quitting while he was on top.

[To read the complete article, please click here.]

*     *     *
Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979. His newest book, from HarperBusiness, is Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t


Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.