Does that new job offer you are contemplating come with a leadership ghost? Have you checked?
After receiving an offer for my first big leadership position, five of my colleagues, independent of one another, called me to warn me not to accept. “Your predecessor,” each of my colleagues said, “will not leave that role. He haunts that organization like a ghost. He is notorious for interfering with all who dare to follow him.” I was young and, truth be told, a bit arrogant and so I dismissed my friends’ advice and accepted the position.
I should have listened.
In the first week in my office, Orv approached me to see if he could “help get me started.” Years earlier, a wise mentor gave me the sage advice to “beware of those who greet you at the door.” What that mentor was trying to say was that often the first people who rush to greet the new leader have an agenda. Not always, but often enough to be a well-worn adage, the first “greeters” of the new leader want to put you in their back pocket. They want to control you from the very outset, all the while making it seem like they are doing you a favor.
This warning, combined with that of my colleagues, set off all my alarm bells. I knew I had a problem on my hands. However, I underestimated just how bad it was going to get. Over the next eight years, Orv made my life a living hell. He actively worked against me. He sought to sway opinion to his point of view. When staff saw him in the grocery store, he ran me down and told them all the things I was doing wrong, in his opinion. He actively fought to maintain the loyalty of the people so he would remain their beloved former leader. It even went so far as he and his wife showing up on doorsteps gifts in a bizarre effort to “win them to his side.”
Through it all I learned that I really should have listened before taking the job. I discovered that an organizational system that tolerated such nonsense from a former leader was so much more dysfunctional than I could see from that early vantage point. Huge red klaxons should have gone off in my head. I failed to hear the robotic voice screaming, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!”
So my friends, before you accept your next leadership role, ask about your predecessor. Inquire about how others perceive how that person will be able to “move on.” Will she or he let you put your own leadership stamp on things? Check with professional colleagues, the Board, or key stakeholders to assess if that founder or long-time leader will be able to emotionally let go. Believe my hard won experience, to be haunted by a leadership ghost is to be in a no-win position.