Passing the Torch

successorOne day you wake up and you’re not the young turk anymore, or even the guy moving toward the top of the ladder – you are the guy other people wonder when you’ll submit your retirement papers. Time passes quickly. It’s over before you know it. Life goes faster as you get older. Cue Sinatra to sing “September of My Years,” except it feels more like October.

One day you turn around, and it’s summer
Next day you turn around, and it’s fall
And all the winters and the springs of a lifetime
Whatever happened to them all*

Okay, enough sentimental gazes at sunsets. I’m misty eyed because of all the cigarette smoke from Sinatra. Not to worry, there’s still enough lead in the pencil to keep writing a good story. In fact, with age comes clear reflection, a clarity that strips away pretense (read: bullshit), and sharpens your sense of humor. Believe me, a sense of humor is essential to growing old.

At this fork in the road, many people try to hang onto the past and stop the hands of the clock from advancing. There are billion dollar industries on keeping people youthful, drugs and procedures for quality of life improvements, and fanciful trips down the aisle of much younger partners. Pete Townsend wrote, “I hope I die before I get old.” I don’t think he really meant it, especially since he’s in his seventies and making money from that song.

Years ago, a colleague made a statement about a person’s message getting old and people tuning out. I didn’t get it at the time, but I do now. In other words, it’s possible to overstay your welcome. I’ve seen it. People hang onto good jobs, they like retaining power, enjoy the admiration, believing that no one can replace them, and maybe coasting a bit in the final laps. It’s hard to turn loose of a great ride but eventually it becomes necessary. We can all be replaced even if we don’t want to admit it.

Eventually, we must pass the torch. We need to pass the torch. It’s the right thing to do. I have people waiting for me to pass it and move on. Well, they need to wait a little bit longer but it will happen. Patience grasshopper.


Many people when they decide to leave a situation they make the decision, get their affairs in order, and move on. What they fail to do is to extend the ladder behind them, cultivate the next group to move up, or provide a gift to the organization as a thank you. Why a thank you? We benefit in our careers from others who helped train us, mentor us, teach us lessons, and befriended us. Organizations provide us training and professional development, teach us how to be successful in our careers, provide us feedback and recognition, and they provide us money to be able to meet our basic needs. Unless we hate our jobs and feel abused, a thank you isn’t asking much.

Before several colleagues retired, I tried to persuade them to prepare for their exits by doing something significant for the organization before they left. Each person was in a position to prepare the organization for the future, not at a loss to their legacy, but an opportunity to use their leadership to push the bar a little higher. I tried but failed to impress upon them the opportunity that existed within grasp of their authority and influence. Each of them was focused on their personal situations and riding out the remainder of their time like a parade down main street. I can’t say I blamed them, they were under no obligation to do any more heavy lifting, but a unique opportunity slipped away. I vowed to not let that happen to me.

I’ve also seen people on their way out settle scores, or use their power to benefit one or a few people so they called in favors and circumvent regular processes to get someone a raise or preferential treatment. That’s kind of a white elephant gift, unappreciated by most, especially those who live the organization’s values.

Okay, so what exactly is passing the torch? Some people train or help select their replacements. Others help transition their jobs to fill other needs in the organization, essentially working themselves out of a job. Sometimes folks leave after completing big projects that move the organization forward. Often employees build quality programs and hand them over for others to take to the next level. Gifts come in all sizes and shapes.

If I could leave a gift it might be taking the torch and stoking the fire in other people. As Tom Peters said, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.”

I don’t know my exact departure date, it could be six months or two years, but the target has been acquired. I don’t look for a parade down main street, just as long as I’m not escorted from the building by security.

*Songwriters: James Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn The September Of My Years lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., IMAGEM MUSIC INC


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