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VIEWPOINT: Stepping ahead by stepping aside

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An unexpectedly shrewd observation I heard from Lord Sebastian Coe at the Discovery Leadership Summit held recently in Sandton really got me thinking. Considered one of the best middle-distance runners of all time, the British Olympic champion set 12 world records over four distances, achieving four gold and three silver medals in the Olympics and European Championships. When asked why he retired from competitive athletics in early 1990 instead of pushing his career further, he replied quite frankly, “My motivation to compete was always about improving one year to the next. At 34 I realised I’d never run any quicker, so why hang on?”

This decision – to retire once he realised he could run no faster – holds a profound insight and application in the sphere of leadership. Coe reminded me that as a leader, if you are not moving the boat ahead, it’s time to step aside. This does not necessarily mean you’re stepping down, or that that you are giving up and letting everything fall apart – it simply means that you realise the time has come for you to progress to a new challenge where you can continue to learn, grow, and make a real difference. Coe, for example, then entered politics and was later appointed chair of the 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, famously leading London’s bid to host the Games. He was personally thanked by the Prime Minister for “lifting the hearts of the nation” and for organising the “most successful Games of modern times”.

Sometimes, mature leadership boils down to getting out the way when you recognise you are either slowing the pack down, that your skills can be better used elsewhere, or that stepping down is necessary for someone else to truly flourish. Far too often in business we have leaders who for various reasons just don’t move on. But sometimes in the sporting world we witness a mature captain step down when they realise potential in a bright, upcoming team member. Some view this as failure, but if you understand the game, you credit such people as brilliant leaders who recognise that they can’t always lead in the same area, and who step aside timeously to make way for others and find new ground to thrive on.

Leadership is this: putting the needs of your business and others before your own. As business blogger Richard Davis says: “Leaders who put their own gratification above the needs of others lack the ability to see the long-term consequences of their actions. This does not bode well for them, the economy, or our country. It’s time we start counting emotional maturity and control among the ‘must-haves’ for leaders everywhere.” ❐

Author: Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of Discovery Life

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