Passing The Leadership Baton

We’re running towards the goal. Full tilt. Knowing that we have to step up our games as a leader.

But there comes a time when we must face the toughest task a leader must face. The task to pass the leadership baton to the next generation.

Why This Is Difficult

The transition was difficult. It’s hard to stop something that you’ve enjoyed and that has been very rewarding.
— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

To some, passing the leadership baton seems to come easy. They’re able to pass the baton just like Olympians. During their greatest burst of speed, they hand off the baton and the next person takes up the race.

For most, this isn’t the case. They like to hold onto their position of leadership as long as possible. Keeping the title and the responsibility.

There’s the struggle.

Leaders love to lead. They love to serve. They know what they’re doing.

It’s tough to give this up and pass the mantle of leadership to the next generation.

So it’s a mixture of the love of leadership and the fear of the next generation failing.

Why You Must Be Willing To Pass The Baton

Think of leadership as a relay race.

You’re the first in a line of runners. The baton is firmly in your hand. You’re running the race and picking up steam. You’ve just hit your stride. And now it’s time to pass the baton.

This is the point a relay runner enters the exchange zone.

The exchange zone is a time and distance sensitive area. Once you enter this zone you have a certain amount of time to make a clean hand-off. Do it too early or late and the next runner falters. Go too far or not far enough and the other runner misses the baton.

Leadership requires correct timing in passing of the baton.

You don’t want to pass off the baton too early. The next leader may not be ready for the responsibility.

You don’t want to pass off the baton too late. You don’t want to overstay your welcome in leadership.

You have to find the correct time to pass the baton.

When Should You Pass The Baton

Discovering the perfect time to pass the leadership baton is tough. It requires you to stay open to change and the up-and-coming leader that you’ll pass the baton to.

The perfect time is as you’re nearing your peak leadership speed. You should be at or near the top of your game. Leading well and taking care of business.

But there’s another component. The next leader must be ready.

He must have entered into leadership already. He has to have a following. He has to have influence.

If he hasn’t started the run yet, the passing of the baton will be sloppy. Do everything possible to prevent a sloppy pass.

Question: How has a sloppy leadership transition affected you? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Leaders that are unwilling to pass the baton should probably not have been leaders to begin with.  

    The next generation may not always appear ready, but we have to take a chance a t some point.  Their style my appear different than our own, but if they’ve been working under other effective leaders they are likely ready.

    • You’re right on target about the next generation. Sometimes they struggle and lead differently than the previous. And it frustrates those in current leadership. Yet it’s not always a bad thing. As long as you’ve been leading them well, they should do well.

  • I love this Joe –  “Leaders love to lead. They love to serve. The know what they’re doing.” 🙂
    I am not the perfect ‘relay’ leader  🙂 – at least in the two instances i’ve gone through major leadership transitions. It’s not an easy process. But i think that we get better (if we allow it), we can choose to learn and get better.

    • I’m with you Ngina. if we want to get better at passing the baton to the next generation it’s something we’ve got to practice. Maybe passing off the small tasks until we’re ready to give them the whole she-bang. What do you think?

      • Yep, that’s the way to go 🙂 It works for the leader and the led.

  • Joe,

    Like Colin Powell says sometime you have to know when to get off the train.

    • That’s a great, and true, statement from Colin Powell. Have you seen someone hold their leadership title too close and stay too long?

      • Joe,

        Unfortunately, yes I have and it was close to home.  My pastor served over fifty years and when he left it created a vacuum.  He walked in one day and just said it was time.  I had seen it coming for years; I was a very yound leader and he was larger than life, A LIVING LEGEND.  He had walked with Martin Luther King and was one of the greatest men wil ever know.

        He died a year after he retired.  He had been sick for years.  That church is a fraction of its former glory today.  If he would have passed the baton earlier I believe these problem could have been avoided.

  • I really appreciate this post.  I’m in a leadership position at my company, and I’m still fairly young.  I’m looking at the leaders in front of me to pass the baton to me at some point.  Meanwhile, I’m beginning to realize my role in this as we hire and grow new leaders into our organization.

    If you look at the Bible, I think Moses did this fairly well with Joshua.  But if you read the story of Joshua, I think you’ll see that one of his failings was his inability to pass the baton to the next generation of leadership among the Israelites.

    We must be intentional in transferring leadership.

    • Awesome Jon. I hope at least one of the leaders in your company will realize the need to pass the baton so they can finish well and the company can continue to thrive.

      Great examples with Moses and Joshua. Moses knew things were coming to an end and he’d been leading with Joshua. The baton passed fairly smoothly for these two.

      • Can you think of other examples where the leadership baton was passed well?  I studying other examples like this can be helpful in teaching us to do the same.

        • Jon,

          The peaceful transfer of power between Presidents immediately came to mind.

          Do you ever see leaders who hold on too long.  How would you advise leaders to avoid this tragedy?

          • I think it happens in the Senate and the Congress.  Term limits may provide a reasonable solution in this case.

            My dad is a pastor, and he was required to “retire” from senior pastoring at a church when he turned 65.  Now, he interim pastors.  This is a case where age requires transition.

            For every leader, it’s important to think of the future.  What kind of leader(s) need to be available for the future of the organization.  When will this happen?  How will we prepare leaders to take on this role?  Can we build from within or do we need to look outside the organization?

            Dave Ramsey speaks often of his planning for transition in his organization.  He’s in his early 50s, and he’s already making plans to pass the baton.

            • Joe,

              I serve in the military and I often see people hang on too long. As Colin Powell said “you have to know when to get off the train.”
              Serving Leaders Who Serve,

              TJ Trent

              My Blog:



            • That’s not something you see too often, the requirement to retire in a church as pastor due to age. I’d wager the current pastor is grateful for your dad’s help. Do you think this helped with the transition of the church?

              • I think it was healthy for the church and for my parents.

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  • Another danger in passing the baton too early: YOU may not be ready to let go. And as a result, stifle or even sabotage your successor. It only damages your own ego and reputation, staining what was otherwise glorious memories of your leadership.

    • Great insight Stephen. I’ve actually seen this happen. The baton passing starts and then it gets pulled back. Then they go to pass the baton and they stretch out the process much longer than needed.

      What do you think leaders can do to stop this process from happening?

      • Thanks, Joseph. Here are some ideas built from my own experiences and practices:

        1. When a leader assumes a role, they understand that their primary goal is actually to identify and groom/ mentor a handful of folk, one of whom will become their replacement whether it be next year or in the next decade or two. Already the leader sustains a healthy perspective.

        2. There are a ton of resources on how to lead, except how to lead leadership transition: one that comes to mind is David Heenan’s “Leaving on Top,” but even a simple checklist would work (including the negative outcomes from those that keep a hand on the reins.)

        3. Understand that the legacy we build is only a foundation for the future. Expecting the next generation to wholeheartedly accept and mimic our own approach, perspective, and expectations is folly.

        As an aside: Here is a press conference of a literal passing the baton!

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