Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Leadership, Life Issues

Know When It’s Time

American filmmaker Woody Allen once lamented, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”  

Endings are not easy for most of us. Endings come with a sense of apprehension, as well as feelings of loss, anger, fear, depression, and confusion. It’s hard to admit we have only so much shelf life. One day we are seen as the future—but time sneaks up—and we find that people are beginning to view us as the past. This is life. Today’s hope is tomorrow’s call for change; this year’s hero is next year’s discard. Whatever way endings come, they are inevitable. Celebrating Luis Palau’s evangelistic ministry last night in downtown Portland, we knew this might be his last banquet. His time of departure is near. Every leadership post is transitory. Every leader is an interim leader.

Given this reality, perceptive leaders pay attention to time. They prepare for their departure. It might come because of the natural process of aging and dying; it might have everything to do with a new opportunity; it might be the result of a change of heart and needed redirection; it might happen because visions, strategies, change, and challenges have led to pushback and termination.

 No matter the cause, the aim behind every transition should be the same—to prepare, and then exit the stage with grace and wisdom and favor. But most don’t. Many leaders do not prepare for their departure even late into their leadership. Succession becomes an event when it should be a process. Think about it. There are not a lot of personal transitions that are successful models worthy of emulation, both past and present. Here’s a short list—

  -Moses resisted to the end, seeking (unsuccessfully) to change God’s mind

  -the default succession plan for most Old Testament kings was an assassination

  -Abraham Lincoln was murdered at the height of his leadership

  -Theodore Roosevelt died restless and frantic, unable to let go of the reigns of leadership

  -Franklin Roosevelt died while leading the nation into a postwar world

  -Winston Churchill’s leadership was eventually rejected, and his last recorded words were, “I am bored with it all”

  -General Douglas MacArthur’s left a legacy that elicited respect, but little warmth

  -Lyndon Johnson knew the nation no longer had confidence in his leadership, so he withdrew and died a bitter man

  -Richard Nixon was impeached in the end, obsessed with his enemies

So what makes for a good transition? Here’s what I have found is important—

  –Make your present leadership count. Before you begin something new, you have to end something well. It doesn’t matter how impressive the next chapter is if you have left the previous one in disarray.

  –Know when it is time to leave. Everything has a season. Organizations tend to have a life cycle, moving from dreaming, to launching, to organizing, to going strong, to institutionalizing, to entrenching, and to dying. Leaders also have a life cycle. Smart leaders come to terms with this. They step back and ask these questions—

   -have I completed my mission?

   -have I run out of energy?

   -do I find myself saying, “If I don’t leave this place, I will die sooner than I have to”?

   -has the organization grown beyond me?

   -have I grown beyond the organization?

   -is the counsel of those closest to me affirming the decision to move on?

   -is it time to pass the baton to those I have mentored?

   -has a new opportunity come?

   -have I lost the support of those who are essential?

American President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.”

 –Prepare the organization to succeed after you leave. Wise leaders plan early, investing in the future leadership. They must. Future leaders represent the organization’s leadership engine. Giving one’s energies to this is the ultimate test of a leader. This requires an unselfishness spirit, a willingness to focus on someone other than oneself.

 –Finish well. “How we leave is how we will be remembered.” I am quoting these words from a leader who noted that people remember, with admiration and appreciation, those who were faithful to their calling to the end.  He was a world-class leader who ran a great race. Unfortunately, he did not finish well. Misbehaviors led to his untimely resignation. He, like so many, forfeited a good legacy.

 –Step aside with integrity. Don’t hang on, or plot a comeback. Some do. They are obsessed with their self-importance. They think they are eternal. They forget that the graveyards are filled with “indispensable” men.

What matters is to leave with people lamenting our leaving. Not because we made them passively dependent. Instead, we made a difference. We influenced lives. Our leadership brought the community to another level. Imaginations expanded, lives flourished, and people became missional. We served the purpose of God in our generation (Acts 13:36).


(This post was adapted from the chapter “Know When It’s Time,” Missing Voices: Learning to Lead Beyond Our Horizons, John E. Johnson, Langham Publishing, March 2019).

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