My work as family psychologist and executive leadership consultant has taught me that letting go of power is one of life’s most daunting, and most necessary, tasks. Torches must be passed, but this passage is rarely a smooth one.
Adolescents present challenges for parents because at this inflection point, offspring are rattling the cage for increased autonomy, requiring mothers and fathers to relinquish their power in the service of promoting the growth of the next generation.
Parents fight this process for many reasons, but primarily because it is painful to be nudged into the twilight of insignificance and irrelevance and forced to contemplate oblivion. Nothing reminds us of mortality more profoundly than growing children, who arrive not with the desire to respect adults, but to replace them. The most fearsome battles in family life are generally rooted in the struggle for power, and power is addictive — once we have it, we never want to lose it.
My conversations with executive leaders reveal very similar battles. This is because leaders, like parents, must learn to gracefully and intelligently relinquish their power if the organizations that they have been piloting are going to continue to thrive, and the effectiveness of that release relies heavily on an individual leader’s level of self-awareness and self-respect.
But power is particularly difficult for leaders to surrender, for reasons that are both obvious and subtle. Self-evident reasons have to do with the perks that leadership has supplied — public recognition, influence over individuals and communities, steady affirmations of value and importance, financial remuneration and pressure from family members who benefit from these advantages.
Retreats from leadership also have more nuanced, less apparent implications, including considerable grief. We don’t leave one stage of life behind without mourning the losses associated with moving forward — in fact, it is our capacity to mourn that helps us to write the next chapter of our life.
Renouncing leadership means confronting the loss of the fantasy of immortality. And because many executives are characterized by a heightened sense of narcissism — it is often a predisposition toward narcissism that propelled them into a leadership position — this awareness of mortality exerts greater psychological impact on them than it might on others, since mortality is narcissism’s “deadly” enemy.
Many executive leaders cling to power because they fear the matrix of discomfiting feelings that, at some level, they know will inescapably accompany its disappearance: loneliness, helplessness, depression, meaninglessness. These emotions, aging leaders intuitively sense, will be even more troubling to experience because they may have become estranged from close personal relationships —with spouses, children, friends and family — during the years that their focus has been the acquisition of power.
In addition, decision-makers subconsciously worry that when they are no longer in power, they will be vulnerable to revenge. Leadership requires choices that at times, intentionally or inadvertently, hurt, anger or alienate others. Leaders may feel secure behind the protective shield of their power but also fear that once they are not buffered by it, they will no longer be inoculated against retaliation. This anxiety can trigger an escalation of aggressive or vindictive behaviors directed at opponents or successors to neutralize or destroy them, behaviors that are incompatible with sound leadership and a healthy executive transition.
Finally, leaders hold on to power because they want to ensure their legacy survives, and the instinctive way to insist this happens is to try to remain in power. The fear of a cherished legacy being dismantled is one of the hidden motivations behind leaders’ reluctance to step aside and cultivate a healthy transfer of power.
These observations seem relevant at this juncture in the presidential election process, as three of the individuals who, according to current polls, may very well may become our next president — Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — are all well into their 70s (73, 76 and 77 years old, respectively).
I am not putting forth an ageist screed or suggesting that any of these three are simply too old to be elected president; there is indeed inestimable value in life experience. But it seems worthwhile to consider the possibility that three of our leading presidential candidates are motivated as much by fear of letting go of power as they are by a genuine belief in their efficacy as leaders of a country that — like any evolving organization or family — requires a homeodynamic balance of innovation and tradition in order to adapt and flourish.