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The Two Halves of the Leadership Journey

By: Mary Shippy

I have listened to the individual stories of leaders in my coaching practice for over 17 years, and I have consistently seen them fall in one of two categories.  Carl Jung used the phrase “the two halves of life” to describe the two major tasks one faces in life.  I think this can be a helpful way to understand the journey of leadership too.

The first half of the leadership journey – young emerging leaders, high potentials, next generation, etc. – seem to be spent on building a sense of identity, importance and security.  It is all about the positive image that you want to present to the world.

The second half of the leadership journey – the encore, the awaking, the invitation, etc. – seems to be spent in discovery that success, wealth and importance is not as important as you once thought it was.  It is the realization that there is more to life, a deeper meaning with a focus on the internal world – what is my purpose, my passion, my community.  Retirement no longer means simply ending, stepping down, and departing a long career.  While the second half brings many changes, for a growing number of people, this time of life is about anything but ending, retreating or withdrawing.

The First Half

Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on the first half of the leadership journey.  Due to our need to create bench strength in our companies, we seem to be caught in the stream of how we engage these young leaders and keep them engage in our businesses.  Rightfully so, we have spent a great deal of resources and energy tracking our success at employee engagement with the millennial generation.

Align Leadership has been addressing this issue in business for the last five years.  Our highly successful EDGE programs drive by our Peer Technology – best practices for cohort development – has successfully helped companies engage young leaders in both knowledge transfer and cohort experience support.

However, we must be careful not to believe that knowledge is the same as experience.  The first half of the leadership journey is not only about knowledge transfer but also about experience – the experience of success and failure.  No YouTube video or TED talk can substitute for the ultimate encounter every young leader has with falling flat on their face.  The courage and tenacity it takes to stand on one’s feet again is the grit that develops the true character of a leader.  It is often those in the second half of their leadership journey who truly understand the concept of grit as vital to the leader of character and principle.  Unfortunately, we often see these second half leaders as outdated, antiquated and obsolete.

The Second Half

All of this emphasis on the first half of the journey has left many of the second half leaders floundering and feeling isolated.  It has been my experience when working with knowledge transfer with Senior Leaders that it brings up both feelings of pride and resentment – pride because it is an opportunity to pass on knowledge to the next generation and leave a legacy and resentment because they are being asked to give away their intellectual property.  I think we often fail to address leaders in the second half of their leadership journey, and dismiss or make light of their need for a new identity.  The second half of the journey is a roller coaster ride mainly because life as you define it – by your work role, your relationships, your daily routines, your assumptions about yourself – is all in flux.

There is often significant confusion in understanding change and transition in leadership succession.  Change is the actual event linked to a time and date – like the retirement party.  Transition, on the other hand, is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way things subsequently become – the year or two leading up to the party and the years after the party.

For leaders to exit the company with grace, wisdom and success means investing in their transition process.  This transition is often underplayed or forgotten in the succession process and results in unsuccessful leadership exits.  The conscious, intentional, personal investment in the transition process plays forward in positive relationships for the future. These unsuccessful exits can produce bad will towards the company, withholding of important information, delayed retirements, lack of engagement and shaky customer transitions.

Align Leadership has just begun to address the transition of second half leaders in companies by offering transition programs and transition coaching for outgoing leaders.  This new emphasis has come for two reasons: 1) Align has started working with more and more leaders in transition to the second half of their leadership journey and 2) as a senior leader myself, I am also working on my own transition at Align.  We are seeking to put into practice all the lessons learned in walking with leaders through this process.  For us, success will be defined as the ability to steward the company to the next phase of growth and the ability to continue to partner with women leaders throughout in the next generations.

Which half of the leadership journey are you in?