Transitions of Trailblazers (Part 2): From Inception to Separation

A busy streetway

Lynn Price
Lynn S. Price
Barbara Kazdan
Barbara Rady Kazdan

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Barbara Rady Kazdan and Lynn S. Price

This is the second in a multi-part series from Barbara Rady Kazdan and Lynn S. Price on the issues nonprofits face in transitioning leadership. You can read the first installment here.


From Inception to Separation

It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but that place in between we fear…It’s like being in between trapezes…There’s nothing to hold onto. [1]

In this second installment of the Transitions of Trailblazers series, we explore the how of leadership transitions. How do social entrepreneurs experience transition? What are their reasons for leaving, the emotions they feel, and the worries they have as they leave behind organizations that reflect their deeply held values?

An Emotional Experience

Impassioned leaders find fulfillment in a variety of ways: a love of the job, a feeling that they’re following a higher purpose, or a sense that they’re making the world a better place.[i] Social entrepreneurs often alter their career trajectories, neglect personal needs and forego financial security to advance their organization’s mission. For these transformative leaders, stepping down – by choice or request – is fraught with emotion.

 The only word to describe the transition is ‘traumatic’.

Even in the best case scenario, the sense of loss is profound: One participant, the daughter of immigrants, started her organization to solve a problem she’d encountered early in her career. Before stepping down, she identified her successor and engaged her board and staff in planning a smooth transition. Post-transition, she served as adviser, board member and spokesperson. Still she told us, “Walking away was the hardest experience of my life.”

While the new leader may be eager to strike out on their own, in their haste to sever ties, successors also walked away from their nationally prominent founders’ access to the movers and shakers in their field. As a result, organizations lost valuable connections and a voice in shaping public policy.

Moving On

What prompted the founders to leave? Often, success brought unintended consequences. While they had accomplished so much for their organizations, that came at a cost. At times, health even influenced the decision to leave. One participant said, “The stress took a physical toll: my doctor prescribed medication for blood pressure and tension headaches.” Upon transitioning out of their organization, founders could take the time and space to think. Some moved on to more creative and collaborative pursuits after leaving; others recognized that all the energy they had put into the organization could now be directed toward their own lives. One founder heeded the advice of Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch in his inspirational “Last Lecture” [2]: “If you’ve given something 10 years it’s time to give it to someone else who’ll give it their 10 years.” Most cohort members were approaching the 10-year mark with their organizations, and many felt it was important to let someone else put forth that energy.

 I wanted to shed the responsibilities that accompanied growth – fundraising, personnel issues, and financial reports.

Often, board and staff resented the founder for leaving.  But is it realistic to expect an innovator to spend an entire career serving one idea and one organization? Or remain CEO indefinitely? Our participants gave ample notice, and several groomed their successors but still couldn’t avoid bumpy, tense transitions. After stepping down, doubts lingered: Did I stay too long? Should I have stayed longer? One founder realized it was time to leave, but wanted to bring everyone along. He believes he “should have just done it,” and focus instead on helping the organization move forward. Another, enticed by a position offering him a national platform, realized he’d “left too soon; the organization was too young.” Founders who continued as board members or advisers wondered whether that was a hindrance or help.

It’s Personal

Years after participants’ transitions, emotions were raw. Despite engaging board and staff in transition planning, the departing founder often became the object of blame: “People I’d worked closely with, friends, cut off communications. It was shocking how quickly and completely those relationships evaporated.” Trusted colleagues were no longer available as confidants; once the center of a collaborative community, the founder was suddenly an outsider.

I cared about my colleagues; thought it was mutual. It surprised and hurt me when close relationships didn’t survive.

Founders called our conversations about transitions cathartic. One reported she was “still recovering, trying to understand what happened.”

Shared Credit and Accountability

Optimism is intrinsic to an entrepreneur’s personality. If one way doesn’t work, they find another. One founder asked, “What happens when you can’t find a way? We pull off the impossible. Then we’re vulnerable when we can’t deliver.” Another said, “I knew being a founder carried with it an irrational sense of expectation and heroism that if something went wrong, the founder could magically fix it.” When the magic failed, even trusted colleagues had no mercy. Noting that, “the person becomes synonymous with the movement,” one member of our cohort exclaimed, “the accountability can’t be all on the founder.”

Social entrepreneurs are risk-takers, challenging the status quo, trying bold new approaches to intractable social problems. Some experiments fail. Others yield promising, if imperfect results. Scientists run many trials before finding solutions. Artists often “go back to the drawing board.” Why are social entrepreneurs expected to get it right the first time? When their risks pay off, they’re heroes. When they don’t, they discover that where they fail speaks louder than what they accomplish.

In the next installment, we’ll take a look at the roles of  the board  of directors and the founder during and after leadership transitions.  

[1] Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy Ferguson, M., quoted in Bridges, W., Bridges, S., Managing Transitions (2016) Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=oy3XCwAAQBAJ&pg=PT47&lpg=PT47&dq=Marilyn+Ferguson+It’s+not+so+much+that+we’re+afraid+of+change&source=bl&ots=jW_QgxmTaP&sig=SmuOraBTiMHIlilVagPfWGiHgFM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjWuOi9u7HWAhXp1IMKHbr3DGAQ6AEIWjAI#v=onepage&q=Marilyn%20Ferguson%20It’s%20not%20so%20much%20that%20we’re%20afraid%20of%20change&f=false

[2] Pausch, R. (2017, September 18). “The last lecture.” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo


With 30 years’ non-profit experience, Barbara Rady Kazdan launched Achieving Change Together to advance and connect leading social entrepreneurs. The founder of two innovative nonprofits, as Director, Ashoka U.S., she built and guided a nationwide network of 120 change leaders. She is a contributing author to Contagious Optimism.

Lynn Price is the founder of Camp To Belong International. She is a social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow with more than 25 years experience keynoting conferences and  guiding scaling efforts of several social causes. She is the author of Real Belonging, Give Siblings Their Right to Reunite® and Vision For A Change, A Social Entrepreneur’s Insights From the Heart.

One response on “Transitions of Trailblazers (Part 2): From Inception to Separation

  1. Ada Jo Mann says:

    Great description of the range of motivations and emotions which accompany translations.

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