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Art of the resignation

18 August 2020

By Andrew Adie, Managing Partner

On a day when Gavin Williamson has faced calls for his resignation as Education Secretary and questions around the conduct and responsibilities of leaders are being discussed globally, in light of the US election, Covid-19 response and a number of corporate events, it begs the question is there a right time and a right way to take responsibility? Should leaders resign when their judgement is questioned or should they tough it out and fix the problem?  

When we look across the board, from politics to business to sport, the buck stops with those in positions of leadership. If the strategy set down, the team assembled and the game played fails to deliver as expected then something has to give and someone has to atone.

The nuanced question for leaders is how do you take responsibility? Do you resign and in doing so draw a line in the sand or do you stay and undertake the hard graft of trying to put things right? If you stay do you command the confidence of the team and your ‘customer’, do you have to cull elsewhere to show that change has been made? How do you begin to personally redefine your own brand and that of the organization you work for? 

If you do opt to resign what does it mean on a personal level for the leader? Are you cast into purgatory as someone who failed and then ran or do you appear dignified, noble, imbued with a sense of service and leadership? Prepared to sacrifice your job for the good of the team?

There is no easy answer to these questions and in reality it depends heavily on the situation. 

In sport the art of the resignation appears to be a far more clear-and-present danger. A few bad results and the manager often gets the sack or, if they’re lucky, gets to jump first.

There are examples of a manager resigning at the peak of their powers, think Pep Guardiola resigning as Barcelona manager in 2012 citing fatigue and the need for a new rejuvenated management approach. That resignation did his career no harm at all and given his reasons he arguably went at the right moment, allowing himself and the Club to move forward with dignity.

In business there are numerous examples of CEOs who have resigned, under pressure from activists, investors or their own boards, and have gone on to maintain and exceed their glittering careers pre resignation. Research from PwC has suggested that the average tenure for a large cap CEO is around five years. Leaving at the right time and showing leadership doesn’t appear to damage the CV (unless it involves issues of personal conduct and poor personal judgement). How you present your time in office appears to be as important as why you left. If you leave but can present a picture of some success (even if as one stage in a long running turnaround), or you faced macro challenges or structural fissures that necessitated a change of leader, then that decision can also provide a platform for personal renewal. A well-made decision that benefitted the organisation.

For politicians the story can also be transformative. Those that resign on issues of political belief and principle (think Boris Johnson resigning as Foreign Secretary) can go on to even higher office. Geoffrey Howe still retains the case study for how to weaponise a resignation to affect change and revenge.

There is however one common denominator that marks most bad exits. Being seen to be (metaphorically) dragged, kicking and screaming from the role, seemingly oblivious to the sentiment of those around you and desperately trying to hold on to power is never a good look. 

To quote the sage of Westminster, Mr Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It: “It IS possible to have a good resignation, you know! ….people really like it when you go just a bit early! You know, steely jawed, faraway look in your eyes! Before they get to the point when they sitting round in pubs and say that [person]’s got to go.”

At times it’s possible to see resignation as something slightly old fashioned. Stiff upper lipped. However, used strategically it can also be a tool of leadership and personal renewal. We all have our time and moment in a role. We also have our time to move onto the next challenge.  Clinging on for personal gain is never going to win respect or benefit your personal brand – taking responsibility to fix a problem (however you decide to do that) is.