Like any good superhero, every predecessor has a cape—and a love-hate relationship with it.
They hate having to put it on to save their team from a disastrous decision. They wish their teams would “get it” instead of requiring rescue.
In confidence, they say, “I wish I didn’t have to think about this stuff anymore. But every time I try to let go, I see them make an awful decision that could risk the business.”
Exiting leaders also love the cape. It puts them back in the saddle and is an intuitive solution that feels comfortable and fits perfectly. The cape gives them another opportunity to save the day, be the hero, and feel the thrill that powered their career success. To quote one exiting CEO: “It’s good to know I’ve still got it.”
Don’t say you don’t empathize; all leaders have capes. It’s hard to let go of something that gave you your mojo. Whether it’s a small task or the entirety of your life’s work, handing over the reins is an act of trust.
Want to be the best predecessor and leader?
Lock up the cape.
When challenged with this idea, leaders often ask why. Here are three reasons:
- You don’t have a cape monopoly – Much like comic books, there is more than one hero in the universe, and that’s true in your organization, too. While swooping in saves the day—especially for the employees who have come to rely on your superpowers—it demotivates high-performers who want to put their capabilities on display. One successor grumbled, “I know she doesn’t believe it, but I could have solved that problem, too.”
- Capes prevent development – Solving a big problem for the team without their requesting help prevents your next leaders from understanding the hows and whys that drive successful resolutions. While some leaders might couch this tendency in paternalism—“I don’t want to see my team suffer…”—it hurts their ability to build the skills and resilience to survive tough challenges. How bad can it get? One soon-to-be-CEO confessed, “[the prior CEO has] full confidence in me, but I don’t think he realizes that he has solved every major problem I’ve faced. I’m terrified of what happens when it’s my job.”
- Capes communicate mistrust – No matter how much you express confidence in your team, they read your actions. Your presence at critical moments of challenge indicates that you’re holding a wildcard that you’re waiting to play at the slightest hint of crisis. That sense of mistrust and always having a backup plan contradicts what is usually a “burn the boats” mentality that executive leaders demand. One candidate who stepped into an executive leader said, “He says he wants us to take over, but I don’t believe it. He will stick around as long as he feels he needs to. The titles might change, but that is going to be it.”
While there’s something exhilarating about that I’m-as-good-once-as-I-ever-was feeling, it’s costly to the people you’re counting on to take the next step. Lock up the cape and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by how well they do. You might learn a new trick or two for your next adventure.