P. T. Barnum is credited with the saying, “Always leave them wanting more.” It’s good advice. When Douglass Lewis was asked why he was retiring as president of Wesley Theological Seminary, he replied with a similar idea. It was something his mother used to say: "You ought to leave the party while you're having a good time."
For long-serving presidents, the decision to take that final bow and step down from the institutional stage can be a hard one. At the personal level, it’s more satisfying to take that bow before an appreciative audience -- more so than being yanked off-stage by a long shepherd’s crook. Professionally, timing your exit has benefits as well. Not only does a well-timed and properly prepared transition protect a president’s legacy, but it can also help a community be more receptive to new leadership, and it can position an institution for continued health and success.
In a 2012 article for In Trust, Heather Grennan Gary spoke with more than half a dozen presidents about their own transitions out of the corner office. Why did they decide to step down? How did boards help with the transition? What is it like to live as a "former" president?
Some of the conversations may still be challenging for current presidents. For example, Sam Calian, president emeritus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, recognized that everyone is expendable. Leaders who feel they are not expendable may be standing in the way of changes the school needs to make, he said.
For anyone curious as to how to plan for a smooth change in leadership — presidents, board members, administrators — this piece offers a unique look at to do it. There's even a list of questions board members can ask to help facilitate a positive transition. Read it now at “A graceful exit."