When a Great Leader Leaves

Change.  It’s inevitable.  It requires us to adapt the way we think and the way we do things.

One of the most recent big changes to my world has been the departure of some great leaders.  So, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to talk about how we (as leaders) need to act when a great leader leaves.

Losing a great leader has a number of impacts, regardless of the reason that they left.  It can rock the very foundation of what people know to be true of the environment in which they function.  Much similar to a ship that is suddenly without their captain at the helm of their vessel.

A great leader is an inspirational force that drives the organization forward.  A great leader provides structure, consistency, and calm.  A great leader is beloved. 

As I’ve listened to those around me talk about the recent departures, I hear many different sentiments; from worry, to excitement, to panic, to confusion, to wonder. 

So what happens when a great leader leaves?  We change.  We adapt.  We overcome.

But what’s required of us as leaders when our leader leaves?  What’s our role?

There are some basics that are critical to ensuring that we ultimately adapt and overcome as an organization.  And you will be a key instrument in ensuring that this happens.

  • Be Calm.  It’s important that during a transition, especially when a leader leaves unexpectedly, you need to be seen as calm (regardless of how you may really feel).  Impacted associates will immediately turn and look at you (as a leader) for how they should respond.  Should we be worried?  Should we be scared?  Should we be angry?  They will take their cue from you.  You set the tone.  If you are calm and confident, it will create a calming effect on your associates and peers.  If you are emotionally out of control and erratic, you can actually make the situation worse.


  • Provide reassurance.  One thing that great leaders often do is develop a structure that is capable of running without them.  They do this through organizational alignment, development of direct reports, establishing clear direction and strategy, etc.  These are the bedrocks that you can immediately rely upon to help move you forward during sudden change. 

Reassure your team that they know their roles and they have tasks in front of them that still need to be accomplished.  Focusing on the task at hand, often times helps people get past the panic and worry about the unknown future.  The simple notion that “we are in control” in and of itself is reassuring.

Get past the why.  While “why” will be a question asked by many, the fact is, the answer doesn’t change the current situation.  We may never fully know why.  So instead of expending our energy here, it’s important that we and our teams focus our energy where it is more productive.  Your team will likely need your guidance and direction to get there.


  • Be Present.  This is time for you to be present amongst your team.  Going back to the first two points, being visible to your associates (and peers) is critical to create that calming effect and to provide reassurance.  Being present also means that you are able to listen and see how your associates are responding to the situation.  Some may require more nurturing than others, but having a good pulse of how your team or the organization is handling the change will help you make the right decisions to move each individual associate and the team forward.


  • Take Stock.  Determine quickly what obligations the departed leader had on their plate and ensure that they are covered.  Don’t let things fall through the cracks.  Similar to sending a calming, reassuring message to the team, this tenet also helps send a calming message to customers, stakeholders, and partners that “we’ve got this”.

One of the greatest examples I can pull as a reference to one of the recent departures is how a group of Senior Directors rallied quickly to determine what responsibilities needed to be met, what meetings needed to be attended, and what customers needed to be communicated with.  They did a great job of splitting up these responsibilities and ensuring that the gaps were filled. 

It’s also important to work with the departed leader’s supervisor and your peers to determine the path forward.


  • Step Up!  This is the time for you to Lean Forward as a leader.  Decisions need to be made, things need to get done.  While some decisions may wait for a new leader to be appointed or hired, the fact is that it may be some time before this person is named.  This is not the time to be timid and passive. This is the time to show ‘what you’re made of’ and that your leaders were right in putting you in the role that you are in.  So, STEP UP!

As always, this list is not all inclusive, but the people that I see achieve success during times of change like this are the ones that cover these five foundational elements (at a minimum).

No one wants to see a great leader leave, but all we can do is appreciate them for their contribution, the time that they spent with us, and be a good steward of the legacy that they have left behind.

So, the question is, when faced with this type of change, will you step up and rise to the challenge?




2 Responses to When a Great Leader Leaves

  1. Matt Kuzma says:

    The point about “Being Present” is so important. It is tempting to hide out and keep your head down when there’s a big leadership change. But the pure quantity of time spent interacting with the team makes a real difference. When I’ve been in this position, I found it very helpful to have lunch with colleagues more, drop by and see people, and make extra sure not to miss meetings or skip one-on-ones. Coping together when colleagues leave builds the team up.

  2. Pingback: Thanks for a Great 2011! « The Leader's Locker

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