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Executive Leadership and the Psychology of Retirement Published: Sunday, September 24, 2006 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

After working with many family businesses, I can fairly say that top leadership succession is largely influenced by the heroic self-concept of the departing leader.  It was the great Otto Rank who suggested (Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development, 1932) that the age-old struggle of humanity is to conquer the fear of having to confront a meaningless life.  This is a fear that arises from the conventional interpretation that life will end with death.  The heroic drive, according to this interpretation, is an expression of human kind effort to survive its own death, to achieve immortality, by leaving a lasting imprint or heroic signature upon society and in some of its institutions.  (Richard Tedlow, Competing Against the Brand Beyond Competition).  This is not about money, but about understanding the profound psychology of heroes in transition or in late career, and the forces that move them to claim that their passages have made a difference, and that people care about the difference they made.

            History and societies have always recognized leaders of organizations as heroes.  Contemporary and profound theories of Executive Leadership stress conscience, passion, ingenuity and heroic behavior.  As men and women perform at high level office, they are expected to play a kind of heroic role in guiding the future of their respective organizations.  Most determined leaders seek and accept this role and serve with a sense of sacrifice and enthusiasm during their passage through their organizations.  It is a mistake to think that for such an effort leaders are paid!  It is about inspiration and something else…  But when time comes to step aside, this is a psychological test of endurance for the departing leader, as well as for the incoming generation.  Departing leaders will have to cope with the fear of the loss of heroic stature, a plunge into the abyss of insignificance, of lack of respect and dignity.  Incoming ones will have to face the test of performing with civic virtue, good manners and a touch of class, and demonstrating to the world their human quality.

            Our researched point is that not all leaders react in the same way to this loss or transition.  The heroic self-concept of leaders in their late career period, tempered by organizations settings and environments, give rise to distinctly different departure styles.  The organization theory statement is that DEPARTURES OF LEADERS HAVE A LARGE IMPACT ON THE WORKING CULTURE AND THE PEOPLE THESE LEADERS HAVE GUIDED.

            QBS has been working for quite a long time with the forces that motivate departing leaders and executives, and finding creative and healthy ways of ensuring that leadership transitions area as smooth and as less detrimental as possible.  Our research and intensive work experiences about EXECUTIVE LEADERSHIP corroborates that leaders day-to-day management and technical activities are less important than their broader agendas of action, and some recent research describe these leaders as having long term heroic missions.  The point is that some leaders can be seen in larger-than-life contexts, while others really decide to move to more private settings to enjoy the family and the delicious intimacy of their homes.

            Our studies and work at facilitating retirement processes show that this important organizational event has been a surrogate of the study of the trauma of aging (Terry A. Beehr, The Process of Executive Retirement).  This makes sense because many people measure their lives by their career accomplishments.  Their seven or eight decades they hope to live can be calibrated by changing relationships, family undertakings, personal growth, geographic moves, community involvements and career events.  The picture is always larger.

            I have always interpreted life and work as a kind of a calling, a inner voice that activates people to make a constructive contribution.  It is a personal thing.  We cannot delegate or copy from others our response to such a voice.  The calling comes from heaven, it comes from God and for responding we have to explore and play with our gifts, talents, passions, loves, and with our true principles and values.

            If leaders accept such a challenge and respond with virtue, they will leave a legacy and develop their vocation, coupling who they really are with what they do everyday.  Then, we can prove that our existence, as creatures of God, had really a purpose and that we can move on graciously, coming to terms with the next stage of aging.  By coming to term with the passages of life and facilitating our retirement we are coming to terms with all things we said and done…  AMEN.


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