Sometimes You Need to Lead by Leaving
One of the most frequent topics that comes up in coaching falls under the theme of figuring out when to fish or cut bait. Many people feel torn about when to keep trying to make a work situation work better versus deciding to move on. Moving on can bring a lot of baggage related to feelings of failure, even if that work environment was never going to be somewhere that person could thrive in the first place. If the person is an active leader and advocate for others at work the feelings get even more complicated.
Dedicated, engaged employees who are natural leaders work hard to drive change to better their companies. They actively listen to their teams and coworkers and work hard to implement solutions to make continual improvement. They can become so connected and loyal to their people that it can be tough to see whether or not the workplace is the right place for themselves. And the habit of advocating for others can morph into a sense of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole, even to the detriment of the individual.
What is so hard about this is if you are that employee leading the group and driving advocacy you can feel like you are being disloyal or abandoning others who need you if you even consider changing your situation. That feeling can come up about a new role that moves you away from the people you are close to, and certainly comes into play if you think about changing companies.
But self-sacrifice for the good of the larger team will hurt you - and them - in the long run. It can be easy to fall into a never-ending need-to-be-helpful cycle that morphs into borderline martyrdom. This is not healthy or sustainable. What you really need to do is to advocate for yourself alongside the advocacy you do for others.
Putting yourself first in advocacy is a way to demonstrate leadership because others need to learn this skill too, particularly when something about a work culture is stifling you and/or others. If you are in an environment that will not let you grow, be heard or bring your best self to work it is time to go. It is a "when?", not a "should I?".
Thinking of this as leading by leaving can help you reorient yourself toward taking action in self-care. You need to lead yourself after all. This is more important than leading others, even though it is not as measurable from the outside and will not show up on a performance review. This is where you have to rely on your internal compass to make sure you are making the right decisions for the right reasons for you. You are the one who does your own career performance review, against your own personal goals and criteria, so only you can know if you are on course or not.
The other leadership component to remember is that leading by leaving can inspire others. Sometimes we get so heads-down as a group that it takes someone breaking out for others in the group to take a more objective view of their situation. It can help them evaluate how satisfied and fulfilled they are and determine if they have a path forward that really works for them. This can even be a catalyst for internal change at the company.
So if you do decide you need to leave your team, your department or your company, know that the impact you have had on your people remains whether or not you are there, and you may even provide some inspiration on the way out. Most of all, make sure wherever you work you can soar, so you can raise others up with you.