When I knew that I would be moving on from my role of school Headmaster five years ago, I considered two primary pathways forward. One was another school leadership position. The other was to become a leadership coach and consultant. A variety of factors would point me in the latter direction, which I have been traveling on for the past five years. But this was only possible due to my willingness to open up to new possibilities and not allow myself to become stuck along the one path that I had come to know so well.
In their timeless presentation on the perils of leadership (Leadership on the Line, HBR Press, 2002, pp. 218ff,) authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky caution leaders to worry less about the form of their work and focus instead on the substance or essence of their contribution. We tend to come to think of ourselves by the form of what we do (“I am a mayor”, “I am a business executive”, “I am a professional athlete”, etc.) and struggle to make sense of things when our positions and status change, voluntarily or not. Suddenly, the stay-at-home mom with an empty nest, the non-profit leader who had not been renewed, the politician on the wrong side of an election, the retired technician or the laid-off laborer find themselves disoriented, with a reduced sense of purpose and unclear direction.
Without question, such periods can be very difficult and confusing, particularly when they occur suddenly and are imposed from without. But when a person chooses to identify first by who they are as people and what motivates them in the service of others, they can more easily and confidently move forward.