Less Musk, more Sturgeon: the art of knowing when to go

As the sun sets on Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure as First Minister of Scotland, business leaders can learn a lot from the way she stood down.

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Helena Young
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Yesterday, after more than eight years in the role, Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as Scottish First Minister. She will vacate the position, as well as the Scottish National Party leadership, once a successor is elected in the coming weeks.

Sturgeon’s leaving is a good lesson for business leaders on the importance of knowing when to quit. Admitting defeat, backing down, or walking while you still have plenty of goodwill – the art of the graceful withdrawal has been somewhat butchered by political and business leaders in recent years.

Liz Truss’ recently began an unrequested return to politics by moaning about critics in the Conservative party who “disrespected” her economy-sinking budget. A remorseless Boris Johnson has also tried to pin the blame for his standing down on the “herd” of MPs that moved against him in his final days.

In comparison, Sturgeon’s was a dignified exit that surprised many with how ahead of schedule it was. In her speech yesterday morning, she accepted that “the time is right” for her to leave, “for my party and my country.”

Sturgeon’s notice period begins just four weeks after the departure of another high-profile head of state; Jacinda Ardern. In January, Ardern announced she would resign as Labour leader in New Zealand after six years in the position, disclosing that she “no longer has enough in the tank” to remain in office.

Both women had endured their fair share of setbacks in recent years. Sturgeon admitted she had become too polarising a figurehead to lead her party. After persistent attacks from the media and political opponents, support for the SNP dropped by 6% earlier this month. Arden’s polling indicated a similar collapse in favour, requiring an uphill battle to re-election.

For business leaders, founders, and CEOs, recognising that you no longer have the trust and respect of your organisation can be a difficult truth to accept.

Exit planning can simply be too painful to consider. We’ve all seen examples of stubborn C-Suite executives who, when the writing’s on the wall, refuse to relinquish power and prepare for a successor.

You simply can’t comment on business management today without mentioning Elon Musk. Since buying Twitter in October, Musk has flitted between publicising plans to leave Twitter, and faux-honourable posts about staying on to ‘see it through’.

I’ve written previously about the different leadership styles that business owners can choose to adopt. All have their own checks and balances, but one of the hardest to execute is also the method Musk is clearly attempting to employ – authoritarianism.

Essentially, an autocratic founder or CEO dictates the direction of the company, including strategy decisions. There is minimal involvement from other management or stakeholders.

Far removed from Musk’s approach is democratic leadership. This is an open method of management, with a leader who takes on board input and ideas from subordinates.

Many startup owners take an authoritarian approach to management in those first years of setting up. It’s only natural that, in a smaller company structure with minimal management tiers, business owners would want to have complete oversight of what’s going on in their company.

But, autocratic leadership, done badly, can often come at the sacrifice of employee engagement, with workers left feeling alienated as their voice isn’t being heard, or even doubting the leadership and vision of their leader.

Musk isn’t bothered about the dangers. The business magnate openly ignored the results of a Twitter poll asking if he should step down as CEO (the result was a big win for the ‘yes’ camp).

Still, even Musk can’t play dumb to the reports of mass quittings by Twitter employees at the end of 2022. Thousands of staff members handed in their notice after their new boss put out an ultimatum asking employees to either opt for “long hours at high intensity,” or leave.

Particularly as a startup grows, and its team inevitably becomes bigger, it is imperative that an autocratic business owner proactively seeks to understand how their employees feel about their leadership approach, and how confident they are in the direction the business is heading.

This isn’t just about finding ways to improve. The act of asking your staff members for their observations will also build mutual respect, and promote a joined-up company culture where everyone is working with, rather than against, each other.

Not to do so would risk the likelihood of mass quittings, as demonstrated by Twitter. More dramatically, it could lead to the ousting of the company leader. For emerging new businesses, this can all too easily spell the end of their lifespan.

The alternative, however, can be constructive and even collaborative. If you’re feeling the time is approaching to step away from running your business, then announcing a poised farewell and defensible succession plan will always be preferable to feeling backed into a corner and having no choice but to suddenly go. Undoubtedly, it’s best to take action while your team still holds you in high esteem.

Good leaders should be able to put the success of a company ahead of their egos. Prioritise open conversation, listen to the concerns of colleagues, and – crucially – be able to admit when you’re wrong. In other words, think less Musk, and more Sturgeon.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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