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Serena Williams and the End of Leadership

Did you see Serena Williams flame out at the French Open? So what was that all about?

Leadership is a phase in one’s life. You start it, do it and then finish it. How do you prepare for its end?

There’s a gazillion books and articles on leadership (including my own). They all tell you how to do it better. But they don’t tell you about that one. How to prepare for the inevitability when you are no longer a leader.

Is it because it’s too reminiscent of death? That once you’re past it, you lose your leadership, then your faculties, and the finally it’s the big O?

No matter. It’s something you gotta be prepared for. And not just for the obvious reasons.

Think about it. If you get to an exalted leadership role, for a while you are on top. Then suddenly you won’t be. Retirement, resignation, fired, heart attack. Replaced by a younger, sharper whipper-snapper. And then what?

Every day we see that. This CEO dies, that one has a boardroom revolt, like the infamous Dov Charney of American Apparel. Another one gets busted for an affair (too numerous to mention). Yet another is beaten out by a younger leader for the job. Or maybe the CEO just gets tired or burned out. Or really does want to spend more time with his family.

But I can guarantee you that the vast majority of these leaders won’t have thought about what comes next, after their last gasp as a leader. And hopefully how to make this new phase of their life more fulfilling.

And maybe this occurs when you are in your 50s or 60s. On average you still have another 20-30 years of life ahead of you. What are you going to do with them?

One of the problems is that often, people who get to be leaders do it because they are good at it, not necessarily because it’s what they would really do if they had had a free choice. Or if they had known what really turned them on when they were younger and took the job.

It’s so easy, if you’re good, to go with the flow and move into a leadership role. After all, people are encouraging you powerfully to make the leap. There are politically-tuned -in people who will profit from your getting up there.

And being there is like being on drugs or steroids. Respect, admiration, envy, even adulation. It’s precisely those rewards that lead to so many leaders taking the wrong, but very human path.

When we are young and on our game, we don’t really know what we truly want to do in life. If someone offers us a great job, plenty of money, power and perks and the respect that goes with it, who can refuse?

And once you are there, other factors take over. Leaders, no matter how practical, humble and grounded when they start often start to feel like they are immortal, all-powerful, invincible, indispensable. It’s how humans are made.

A leader’s rewards when she is a leader are external in nature: power, money, influence. But they might not truly satisfy us because they don’t meet our deep needs for something else. They might not and mostly do not satisfy our internal needs.

Most leaders probably aren’t getting the internal rewards they need to round out their life in the way they would want if they had really thought about it. Which they mostly don’t.

Some eventually find it. Bill Gates for example. But not too many people have the money he’s got.

Steve Ballmer has met the end of his leadership. Of course, he’s more than comfortable. But what’s he going to do now? And will it truly satisfy his fundamental life aspirations?

Most ex-leaders don’t have those resources. For many, the end of leadership comes abruptly. They are unprepared both for the event and for the future.

What do you do for an encore after a successful career in leadership? How about an unsuccessful end to that career? Or one at the end of which you were unceremoniously dumped?

If a leader has been fired or dumped, he will probably have some complex emotions. Denial. Anger, Depression. Resignation. How do you prepare for that?

Serena Williams had a good run. But no doubt she was as surprised as anyone that it has come to an end. No doubt she is experiencing some strong and unfamiliar emotions too. Just like so many other ex-leaders.

If you’re a leader, remember that at some stage it will come to an end. It might come in a good way or a bad way. Even if it’s a good way, what is the encore?

And if it’s a bad way, how do you confront the demons and prepare for the next 30-40 years of your life in a way that will represent a better experience for you than the last 20?

It might sound silly, but the best time to confront the end of leadership is when you start it.

If you only confront it at the end, it might just be way too late.







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