The countdown has started. Of course there are many ‘countdowns’ as kids grow up, but this one is perhaps the biggest whilst they remain under your roof and in your fridge. The one I am referring to, of course, is preparing to leave home. In just a few days Keegan, free at last of school, heads off to the UK for a year. It is something that has become known as a ‘gap year’. I have always found the term ‘gap year’ a strange one as it betrays a mindset towards life that insists that school should be followed immediately by the ‘serious stuff’ of more study or work. Certainly that was the way it once worked, but for numerous reasons it is no longer the case.
What I am certain of however, is that when Keegan returns home, things will never be the same. The rules of engagement will be different and he will arrive back having had the itchy-feet seed firmly embedded in his mind, a natural consequence of travel. Keegan’s experience will significantly impact on his worldview, enlarging, shaping and moulding it as his horizons expand. Also, he will have experienced something at his age that neither of his parents had done. But I am getting ahead of myself.
As parents, we all know this day will come. Along with death, taxes and dead hamsters, it is a certainty. That doesn’t make it any easier and somehow I suspect that it is tougher on moms. I guess it represents a significant severing of the emotional umbilical cord that evokes in moms a deep sense of loss. Perhaps this sense of loss is more acute then that experienced by fathers who ready themselves to welcome their sons, boys who have become men, to the bigger world that awaits. Could it be that the role of mothers and fathers at this point undergoes some hard to define shift in which the emphasis passes from the mother to the father – with sons, at least? Maybe.
Then there is the question of whether or not he is prepared for all that the outside world will throw at him. All the ‘what if’ scenarios play themselves out, leaving parents anxious about how well they have done their job and with that ‘night before exams sensation’ when you realise that what you don’t know now, you never will know because it is too late for cramming. There is the realisation that your role as a parent in shaping and moulding this creature who is about to stretch his wings and fly, is done. Whether or not this realisation arrives as a head-on collision or as the sum total of several thoughts in this direction, its impact is daunting.
I have made it a habit to give the following advice to new parents: prepare your child for leaving. It seems odd advice to be giving someone whose child is only a couple of days or weeks old, but I believe it is never too early to be planting that message in the soil of parenting. Some have recalled how odd they found the advice at the time, but how it helped to shape their attitudes and behaviour as parents.
Paradoxically, ‘preparing to leave’ is a pertinent message for every leader from day one. Leaders who fail to do so grow into dictators who cling to power and position because they have nowhere else to go. They become the sort of leaders who resist change and are easily threatened. They usually surround themselves with those who tell them only what they want to hear, or who echo what they themselves hear. They are the kind of leaders who become trapped and snared in holes of their own making. Ask Saddam Hussein.
Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, when reflecting on his role and influence on the corporate giant, said that these would only become apparent after he had left. He spoke of leaving a legacy. Popular author Scott M Peck summed it up succinctly when he said that the measure of a successful life is to have loved, lived and to leave a legacy. Leaders who understand these imperatives are leaders who, from the moment they are entrusted with the responsibility and gift of leadership, plan to leave. They deliberate about what they will leave behind and then intentionally strike out in that direction. They build environments and teams that will thrive without them and spend their energy developing the human and logistical resources to make this possible.
Such leaders are usually very different from those who fail to follow such a plan. They always seem to have time for others; they have a welcoming manner about them, one that invites connection and conversation; they listen well because they understand that they can learn from anyone and everyone; they ask and invite questions; they leave you feeling buoyed rather than overawed by their importance, agenda and mood. These are the truly great men and women, those leaders who understand that their role is one of preparation and so marshal their energy and resources accordingly. For an example of this we need look no further than Nelson Mandela. I have met the great man and I can attest to the power of his presence because of his embodiment of the above description.
Dare I suggest that if you feel that others around you are so dependent on your presence that preparing to leave seems incomprehensible, then your leadership is heading in the wrong direction?
Prepare to leave.
It is good advice for any leader. Is it easy? Of course not, but then who ever said leadership was easy?
Here is closing story that serves to underline the point of this blog:
I know a wise Bishop who, when he turned sixty, announced that he would relinquish his local and national leadership positions with immediate effect. He told the story of how he had written a letter to himself ten years earlier, when he was fifty. The letter was to be opened and read on the occasion of his sixtieth milestone. The letter revealed his perspective at the age of fifty on senior clergy who had hung on to their own leadership positions long after they should have vacated them. He vowed that he would not fall victim to the same error and wrote that, at sixty, should he find himself in the same position, he would immediately resign. (In fact his letter contained ten reminders to himself, based on his perception and foresight.) This took great courage for no doubt he would have been strongly tempted to listen to those voices from both within and without encouraging him to ‘stay a little longer’. Before I wrote this I made contact with him once more to hear the story. He is still actively engaged in his work and without question could still have been in a position of national leadership. Does he, with hindsight, regret the decision he took so many years ago? Absolutely not!