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Leadership

How to transition well

Credit: Eric Risberg via AP

This year marks Tim Cook’s fifth anniversary at Apple. Over the past few days, various media outlets have run articles assessing his leadership so far at the iconic company. Apple has largely transitioned from a cool tech company under Steve Jobs to an all-encompassing behemoth under Cook, with tentacles in hardware, software, music, and, reportedly, the automobile industry.

This got me thinking about the various transitions that involve leaders . The first transition comes with assuming a new leadership role. Subsequent transitions follow within that role. Leadership, comprised of numerous transitions along the way, in many ways mirrors life: we transition from child to teenager, from college student to adult, from married with no children to married with children. How we respond to these transitions defines how we grow and mature in our lives. With the new school year underway, an obvious transitioning point for so many in our culture, let’s walk through strategies that help leaders transition well.

Michael Watkins wrote a popular Harvard Business Review book entitled The First 90 Days, an excellent read about this subject. One of the most important things a leader in transition can do is to mentally prepare for the new role of leadership. Max DePree’s maxim of leadership applies here: the first task of the leader is to define reality. Before leaders can define the reality for others, they have to do it for themselves. Mental preparation involves giving yourself time and space to reflect and think about the new task ahead of you. Whether you are an internal processor or an external processor, the need for this reflective space is important, as it is the birthplace of the motivation and energy that you will rely upon for your new endeavor.


Let’s say you are a student. How would you apply this principle of mental preparation as you begin a new school year? One important thing you could do is to take time to look at your schedule, plotting out key moments in the semester. You could also gather a few friends and talk about what your goals are for the semester. As Stephen Covey encourages, begin with the end in mind.

Beyond mental preparation, leaders need to build confidence early during their new leadership. Watkins borrows John Kotter’s (the guru on change leadership) phrase in describing how leaders needs to generate short-term wins quickly in order to build their confidence. That means that you as a leader in this new task need to set several attainable goals early in your time, and then work as best you can to make them happen. If you are a student, that means prioritizing early assignments, focusing yourself on making sure you build confidence in the class by meeting the teacher’s expectations.

The final strategy leaders can use to transition well is to focus on building your team. Jim Collins famously described this as “getting the right people on the bus” in his book Good to Great. Leaders need to have co-laborers who will help, not hinder them, in achieving the new task before them. This is a difficult task at the positional level as it often requires the removal or replacement of other people, but this strategy goes beyond positional team-building. Leaders need to make sure they have a support system of friends, colleagues, and family that they can lean upon during the difficult transition period. Students are the same. The success you want will largely be helped or hindered by the people surrounding you, so it’s important to prioritize spending time with people who will encourage, strengthen, and challenge you in the right ways.

The Bible speaks to life and leadership transitions frequently, and one of my favorites is the transition from Moses to Joshua. Joshua was Moses’ assistant, accompanying him on parts of his journey to Mount Sinai in Exodus 24, as well as being with him at the tent of meeting where the Lord spoke face to face with Moses. (Exodus 33)

As the book of Joshua opens and he assumes leadership after Moses’ death, we see how God, the ultimate and perfect leader, defines reality for Joshua by telling him: “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (1:5).

The words of God to Joshua define our reality today as well. Jesus’ promise to the disciples to not leave them as orphans (John 14:18) defines the reality that God will always be with us, whatever the circumstances may be, and in whatever difficulty that may arise. With every transition we can look forward with confidence because our strength is not our own, but comes from the source of strength itself: King Jesus.

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