Tom Urbaniak offers advice for all those clinging to power.
Knowing how and when to resign, stay or transition
As an act of solidarity with her members, and in deference to the grievances of Nova Scotia’s teachers, Liette Doucet should have resigned as president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.
By recommending three unpalatable contracts, the union leadership and bargaining committee misjudged the gravity of members’ concerns. In these circumstances, resigning would have been an honourable and respectable act. It would not have been a disgrace to Doucet or her fellow executives. On the contrary.
But resigning would also have refreshed the union and kept the government on its toes.
The art of knowing how and when to resign is a lost art, to the detriment of our politics, our organizations and our communities. Too many people are clinging to power when they shouldn’t. And too many others are walking away very abruptly and gracelessly, putting their organizations at risk and ignoring the transition.
I think there are five rules to take into consideration:
1. Maintain the essential confidence of your members and know if you have lost it.
2. Don’t sacrifice your soul. You may need to resign because of your conscience.
3. Whatever the circumstances, ensure a smooth transition. Mentor other leaders and be available afterwards.
4. Don’t hoard power. Let others lead with you and be transparent in order to ensure resilience once you leave.
5. But in the face of immediate disaster, the “captain” is the last one off the ship.
Maintaining “essential confidence” does not mean that everything you do has to be voted on by everyone. But it means being accountable and inclusive. It means a lot of listening. A major miscalculation on a central issue (like the teachers’ contracts) could be a sign that the confidence is severely shaken.
Politicians and leaders of organizations hold positions of service. As such, they should have core principles. When forced to endorse contrary core principles, a resignation could be in order, albeit stated with humility and dignity.
I was struck by something in “The Young Politician,” Donald Creighton’s splendid first-volume biography of John A. Macdonald.
It was the relative frequency and eloquence with which ministers of the Crown in pre-Confederation Canada did the honourable thing by stepping aside. They did so when they noticed that confidence in their ministry was evaporating – or when there was a major cabinet measure that they simply could not support in good conscience. Politics had to be about a higher purpose.
But sometimes it’s not one issue or controversy that should lead someone to step down. It’s realizing that new leadership will bring new vigour. When Pope Benedict XVI took the remarkable step in 2013 of resigning while still living, the first time a pope had retired in almost 600 years, he spoke frankly and humbly of his recent weariness. He referred to “my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
I have seen too many leaders of organizations, including community organizations, who are almost jealous that their successors might actually do a good job. Don’t they realize that it would reflect well on them? Handing over the reins gracefully and smoothly to a successor who succeeds is a mark of mature leadership.
Whether because of jealousy or lack of reflection, some transitions that should be normal transitions in normal times are too abrupt. There is no advance notice. There has been no cultivation of other leaders and little previous sharing of responsibilities to help others gain experience.
A leader who leaves too much of a void or vacuum has fallen short.
The common denominator here – whether resigning, staying or transitioning – is a sense of duty to the people we serve.
I recently invited my students to reflect on the film Sully. It’s about the captain who safely and skillfully landed his plane on the Hudson River in crowded New York after a major malfunction.
Of course, he was the last one off in the face of immediate disaster. The whole episode is a bit of a metaphor for leadership: calm and independent judgment, smart consultation with others, devotion to his passengers and humility.
“I want you to know, I did the best I could,” remarked Captain Chesley Sullenberger (aka “Sully”). We know that we’ve had a good run, and a good life, if we can say the same about ourselves with all sincerity.
“Too many people are clinging to power when they shouldn’t.”