I learned a valuable leadership lesson today, or more specifically, I was able to finally articulate a leadership lesson today, and I really felt I had to share.  I believe the entire premise of leadership in our typical corporate structure is flawed, and although I have always had this bubbling around the edges of my mind, for some reason today it snapped into focus for me.  I think this is the very reason that so many of us that are actually good at being leaders feel such a deep dissatisfaction with it.

This may be different in different organizations, but in every organization I have ever worked for, our goal is to make our selves redundant.  Your goal is to create a machine that runs so flawlessly that it can run even without your presence or attention.  On the surface this makes sense.

Our primary mission as leaders is to train new leaders under us in order to grow the machine.  The most common first step for this is to train someone to replace ourselves.  That way we can move on to bigger and better things.  After all, one of the first questions in an internal promotion interview is “Who did you train to replace you?”  From the perspective of the machine, this even makes a certain amount of sense.  Yet it doesn’t address the needs of the leader.

We often see what happens when this process fails.  No new leader is ever trained behind.  The unit stays mired in a spiral of failure.  The leader fails to address the problems of the unit to allow to growth.  The same issues arise over and over again until either the leader resigns out of frustration, disgust or shame, or the corporate machine acts out of self preservation and removes the faulty piece.  This outcome is bad for the leader, and they must start over in a new machine.

What we rarely discuss is what happens when that system succeeds, yet the life-cycle can’t move on.

Let’s say the leader succeeds.  A new leader is trained behind him.  All of the performance issues of the unit have been corrected, and the machine is able to move along with equal performance whether the leader is present or not.  No further training, coaching, or input is really required from the original.  Yet for one reason or another, that leader has no where to go.  What becomes of that person?

The more cynical or lazy among us would look at that setup and say “That person has it made.  He can show up forever, do virtually nothing, and continue to get paid for it.”  Many people would love to have that position.  A good leader isn’t one of them.

For me and so many others like me, we are only able to define ourselves professionally by the struggles we overcome.  We are put in the positions we are in because of how we react towards our team.  We want to meet the budget.  Grow our market.  Launch the new product.  We want to see our new hires sell their first item, their first 1000 items, get their first promotion.  When all of those milestones are gone, what is left?

We become the parents whose children have grow and succeeded beyond ourselves.  The linebacker whose team won the Superbowl while we were injured.  The commander whose troops have all been released.  Without people that need us, and depend on us, our entire careers have become hollow.  We have succeeded, and thus have given ourselves no meaning.  We are the pages leftover after the book has been completed.

A wise leader of mine once told me, the time to leave is after you have everything running perfectly.  That’s when you go off to find a new mess to fix.  At the time I dismissed him as crazy.  At the time, I wasn’t a leader yet.  I wish I had followed that advice.  The greatest death a man can have, is to live long enough to realize he has gotten too old.  It took me all this time to realize, that’s what happened to my career.

Today I looked on my assistant, my protege, and my best friend.  I realized that he doesn’t need me anymore.  All of my crew have learned everything I have to teach.  I saw the future without me in it.  There will be new stories written, and new victories to be had.  Yet never again will they include me.  I have passed from it being us against the world, to them against the world without me, and unfortunately, it happen while I was still there.

If you know someone that leads, and is unhappy, reach out to them.  They just want to feel needed, because they can’t know any greater professional pain than to see themselves succeed into oblivion.