Topics on Aging

By Juan Gallo

Why do Some Older Leaders Resist Stepping Down? 

September 5, 2023

Why do Some Older Leaders Resist Stepping Down?

Senator Mitch McConnell has been in the news recently, after he froze during two separate news conferences — once in late July and then again last week. 

Both times, the 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader stopped talking mid-sentence, freezing for 30 seconds. He didn’t initially respond when he was prompted by his staff. 

The second time, he was attempting to answer whether he would run for president in 2024. 

I don’t want to get political, especially since news outlets and political commentators have been ruthless in their scrutiny of the senator. 

But I do believe these incidents highlight a concerning trend in our culture. 

Neurologists watching the videos said that McConnell may have experienced a significant health issue like mini-strokes or seizures. And yet he has repeatedly downplayed what happened

He’s hardly the only older, high-profile politician that I’ve seen tripping on stage or nodding off in the middle of hearings. 

As we explore self care this month, I can’t help but wonder: Why do older leaders feel like they can’t retire? 

A widespread problem

My concern is that the older leaders aren’t comfortable passing the mantle to the next generation. 

It’s not just our national politics. I see this happening at the local level, in businesses and in church leadership. Many older leaders seem reluctant and even resistant to letting go of their titles and roles. 

It just makes me wonder: Is it fear that stops them from retiring and enjoying the fruits of their labor? Is it a strategy? Do we lack enough younger leaders?

Retirement isn’t a guaranteed luxury for much of the Baby Boomer generation. But many of our leaders do have the money to quit their day jobs. 

Is it that they are reluctant to let go of their sense of worth? 

The challenges of mentoring new leaders

I’ve discussed this plenty of times with other leaders who are around my age. We’ve talked about what we’re going to change when these guys retire. 

We’re frustrated that older leaders won’t budge on certain policies. 

In some extreme cases, the decision to not raise future leaders might be intentional. But I don’t think that’s usually the case.

Even in my early 40s, I’ve experienced how hard it is to mentor a new generation of leaders. We had a summer internship program at Heart2Heart this year, and I was intentional about pouring into those young people. But that effort takes time and patience. 

I don’t know how patient I’ll be when I’m in my 60s or 70s, looking at a 30- or 40-year-old who’s night-and-day different from me. I can understand thinking, “Yeah, I’m not going to retire so you can come in and blow this whole organization apart.”

Key priorities in the transition

In a previous blog, I talked about how our culture of urgency has turned retirement into a shocking halt. If you’ve lived at a 100-mile-per-hour pace for 65 years, the sudden leisure may actually create a decline in health.

Perhaps the fear of letting go of leadership is on all of us. Perhaps we’re not creating a safe off ramp into retirement.

How do we shift our culture into honoring and creating a safe space for people to age well?

I don’t know the answer, but I will say this: When we talk about ushering anyone into a new space, a few key priorities should remain in focus. 

First, we should treat those who went before us with the honor and dignity they deserve. 

While we’re right to question if a leader’s health condition may prevent them from leading well, we should not look down on them. We’ll be in their shoes before we know it. 

Second, we need to empower retiring leaders to make their own choices, even while we keep their safety in mind. 

Empowerment is about maintaining curiosity as well. When my dad has a question about how to operate his cellphone, I encourage him to Google the answer and try to figure it out, rather than fixing it for him.

Finally, we need to advocate for their choices and their best interests. 

A safe “off ramp” 

Usually, when the founder or CEO of an organization retires, the company throws a big party to honor the contribution. But then the leader goes home. 

Why couldn’t the leader stay on the board in some capacity, if he wants to? Why couldn’t he remain a part of the organization in an advisory role, staying active while allowing space for more leisure?

I believe there is a place for older leaders who want to take their foot off the gas pedal. A place where we can still benefit from their wisdom. 

Even while we steer the ship in a new direction. 

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Juan Gallo
Juan Gallo is the CEO of Heart2Heart Outreach, where he oversees the mobilization of volunteers to provide hope, share love and restore purpose to the lives of the aging population across South Florida.

He also serves as a local pastor and as an adjunct professor at Trinity International University, where he is teaching a course on diversity and aging. Juan has a master’s degree in counseling and psychology and is a licensed mental health counselor intern.

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Juan Gallo

This blog is a frank conversation about what it means to age in our society.

I want us to consider what a wider range of diverse experiences when we talk about aging. I want to reflect on how we, as a community, want our neighbors and our mothers and fathers and our grandparents to live out their latter decades of life. I want us to consider each one of their voices as we strive to meet their needs.

Join me for weekly discussions about what it means to be a senior in South Florida and how we can and should respond to the growing needs of the aging population.

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