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What I’m about to write about (in my view) is a progressive way of thinking about leadership and leadership succession. But I’ll speculate that some political Progressives will disagree vehemently with what I’m about to express—and for understandable reasons.

Octogenarians Are in Charge

This essay is not an indictment of Bernie Sanders. Hardly. In 2016, I voted for Bernie in my state primary election and in the general election, too (even though my write-in vote didn’t count). I’ll vote for him in the 2020 state primary and, if nominated, I’ll vote for him in the general election, as well.

The issue for me—a 70-something myself—pertains to a general principle that I’ve long espoused and tried to practice faithfully. It’s to do everything one can to enable the next generation of leadership.

How many of these ‘aging superstars’ are unwilling to step out of the spotlight?

I’d like to say that I see evidence of that happening in national politics, but I can’t. The evidence is clear: Donald (73), Joe (77), Bernie (78), Nancy (79), Mitch (77), and Bloomberg (77) are six prime examples. They aren’t alone. Secretary Wilbur Ross is 82, and eleven U.S. senators (led by 86-year old Diane Feinstein) are 76 years of age or older. Elizabeth Warren (70) is in the wings. As Charlotte Alter pointed out recently in her TIME article, most of these people aren’t ‘Baby Boomers’ (born in 1946ff)—the generation of Americans that we typically refer to when it comes to handing over the leadership baton. They’re older.

My point? I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what has become a pattern. And my discomfort has less to do with health concerns or questions about their ability to lead. It has more to do with the answer to this question: How many of these ‘aging superstars’ are unwilling to step out of the spotlight?

I’m no psychologist, but I have enough experience to know that identity plays into the equation. ���If I’m no longer x, y, or z, then who am I?” The lights, the camera, and ego-stroking can be addictive. Anybody who has ‘been there’ knows that giving up power can be a difficult proposition.

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A few years ago, a friend of mine confided how excruciating it was for him to be out of the public eye. He found it so difficult that he tried other means (post-retirement) to stay in the limelight. His strategy worked for a while, but the inevitable happened: his public voice and impact waned. It was painful to observe.

The quest to stay relevant can push some people so hard that they become unrecognizable vis-à-vis their former selves. Rudy Giuliani and Alan Dershowitz are contemporary examples.

Stepping out of the spotlight doesn’t mean vacating a public space. It means transitioning to new and different roles. Helpful roles. Needed roles. “Let the next generation lead!” roles. Jimmy Carter stands out. “An assist leader,” is the way an administrative colleague of mine likes to put it. She uses basketball’s Magic Johnson as an example. Johnson was especially adept at assisting others in scoring. Those skills helped the Lakers win NBA championships and made Johnson a pro-Hall-of-Famer.

In today’s politics, getting out of the spotlight and transitioning to ‘assist’ roles seem in short supply. I used to think that men were especially vulnerable because what men do for a living goes a long way toward defining their identity—especially successful men (title, please!). Today, women are traveling in the same lane. It’s partly because ‘effective leadership’ often means ‘leading like a man,’ that is, being strong, directive, unflinching, and courageous—field-of-battle qualities. I can say with a straight face that some of the best men I’ve worked for were women.

I’d like to see more people my age serve in mentoring and support roles—especially those in/running for public office—being what a colleague of mine describes as a ‘guide by the side.’

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You have so much to give, 70- and 80-somethings. It’s a matter of how you give it.

Frank Fear

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