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How to Avoid Every Leader's Nightmare: Becoming Irrelevant

Fear of Becoming IrrelevantEver wonder why rich and powerful CEOs and other "important people" never seem to retire? Some of them hang onto their jobs well into their 80s. Others seem to retire, only to resurface down the road. There are a number of causes for this behavior, but the most insidious and perhaps least understood one is the fear of becoming irrelevant.

This particular fear, surprisingly common among successful people, comes from the typically shocking realization that what you think, say, and do, what once caused hoards of people to stop what they were doing and pay attention, no longer matters ... to anyone.

To the vast majority of you, I know that sounds a little far-fetched. It would have sounded that way to me a decade ago, as well. But trust me when I tell you this fear is not only real, but it probably accounts for a large percentage of depressed or at least miserable aging former executives, managers, entrepreneurs, politicians, professors, engineers, anyone who might, at one time or another, have felt "important."
And the biggest issue with the fear of becoming irrelevant is that it doesn't happen slowly over time. Most people never see it coming. Instead, the realization is like falling off an unimaginably high pedestal and essentially crushing your self-image, all at once. It sort of takes the place of a midlife crisis for former executives and business leaders. It's nasty stuff. Really.

Fortunately, there are four things you can and should do to help avoid this horrible nightmare:

  1. Be passionate about things other than your job and the power and perks it brings. If you're a self-proclaimed workaholic or you're fond of saying, "work is all I do" or "work is all I've ever loved," that's a bad sign. Find something else to be equally passionate about. Just a hobby or two won't cut it.
  2. Be self-aware. Know yourself. Know what motivates you and why. Sometimes we think we do but we really don't. How do you know if you do or don't? Well, if you have a history of troubled relationships, anxiety or panic attacks, or other behavioral issues, you might consider seeing a good shrink. You think I'm kidding? Well, I'm not, not even a little.
  3. Be proactive about the decision; don't just let it happen to you. If you get canned or laid off and figure, "Well, it's been a few decades, I might as well call it quits and relax while I still can," you're just asking for trouble. In that event you clearly haven't given the prospect enough thought to really anticipate how you're going to feel "down the road." Unfortunately, "down the road" can take years, at which point you're no longer relevant or hirable. That's when it becomes a real problem.
  4. Bring your spouse, family, and accountant into the picture before you make any decisions. When I quit working as a fulltime executive seven years ago and began consulting and working from home, I had no idea how much that invasion of my wife's space would affect her and our relationship. Then there was the financial crisis. The bottom line is that it's not just about you. And the decision that you probably think is yours to make can have a ripple effect that may come back to haunt you in the end.
Now, I can't help but wonder if you or someone you know has had a runin with this potentially debilitating fear. If so, let us know. If not, be forewarned.

Image CC 2.0 via Flickr

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