You’ve climbed to the top of the corporate ladder and run the company well as CEO, but now comes the most difficult part of the job: knowing when to step down.

It can be a heart-wrenching decision or a great relief. You’ve put so much energy into an incredibly demanding position, driving your company forward and leading it to sustained success, but nothing lasts forever. You may see signs of slippage in the business and/or in yourself; you may realize that your industry is changing and you’re not equipped to guide the next strategic shift. Or you may have had an awakening, your idea of quality of life no longer aligns with the workaholic life of a CEO.

3 Reasons to Step Down as CEO

  1. Your health is in danger.
  2. There’s someone who can do a better job.
  3. You’ve lost the trust of your team. 

Leaders I’ve spoken with say the hardest part is separating your personal self from your work self. As high-level leaders, our careers, positions or stations in life become our identity. And at some point that becomes unhealthy.

Letting go is difficult. We must ask ourselves, “Are we holding on for our own ego, glory or recognition?” What I realized is each time I refused to let go of something, it was because of fear. But I learned I could overcome that if I felt like I was letting go for a greater cause.

Do you have the awareness to see the signs that it’s time for you to step down as CEO? Here are three of the brightest red flashing lights that it’s time to move on:


1. Your Health Is in Danger 

This was my wake-up call. How well CEOs deal with the high stress of their position often determines whether they have longevity in the job or need to step down. Choosing unhealthy coping behaviors like excessive drinking or taking drugs will catch up with you.

Taking over my father’s highly successful healthcare business after he passed away, I became a workaholic and an alcoholic. I turned more inward and further committed to work, neglecting family and friends. Health issues led to multiple hip and back surgeries, and I turned to alcohol as a means to cope.

I was relying on self-sufficiency my whole life, and while that sounds like a good thing, it’s ultimately a real weakness. I had the whole world on my shoulders, and for 20 years I thought I had to fight the world by myself. After pursuing recovery, I changed my attitude about success and what it meant to strive toward my goals. My first step was to step down as CEO, taking a role on the company’s board of directors instead. That transition helped me listen to the people I worked with and step back from my need to be in complete control. 

Addiction, depression, damaged relationships, loneliness, divorce and health problems — all of these are possible outcomes of having too much stress or an inability to manage stress as a CEO. Know when you should step down. Take an honest inventory of your life. Do you give so much at work that you’re depleted at home? Are you becoming a mental and/or physical wreck? Value your life and save it before it’s too late.

More on LeadershipHere’s How a Personal Board of Advisors Can Help Your Career


2. There’s Someone Who Can Do a Better Job

Good leaders are those who are unselfish, empower other leaders, see the big picture for the company and can set their ego aside for the good of the business. When they know another leader would be a more effective CEO, it’s time to let go and give that person the reins. 

Perhaps this person is outside the company or internal, but when putting the business and its future above your own self-interests, you should know when someone has the right set of skills, personality and knowledge to take over. This transfer of power often happens when the company’s growth has plateaued. 

The blueprint that led you to success may be outdated. A new CEO offering a smart and sensible new strategy and ways to implement it, along with the communication ability to connect effectively with the workforce, is required.

My company, Palmetto Infusion Services, is much bigger than me. My partners had a  role in me changing. And now that I’ve done it once, I’m doing it over and over. I’m doing it on board seats, with new companies that I’m buying, and at home. I’ve learned to be “part of” rather than have the spotlight on me and the microphone in my hand. I’ve turned the spotlight on others. The benefits are dramatic. I love being a part of something now because I get to see my teammates flourish as well as our company.

More on Leadership5 Signs It’s Time to Start Exit Planning


3. You've Lost the Trust of Your Employees

Employee trust in leadership has been trending downward. Leaders earn trust over time, and it can be difficult to regain once it is lost. And once enough people under the CEO lose trust in him or her, it’s irreversible and costly to the company’s productivity as more employees feel disengaged, disrespected, resentful and uninspired. 

If the CEO can’t win back trust by changing their behaviors, admitting they’re wrong and correcting missteps, stepping aside is the only option. If a CEO truly cares about their company and all the people who make it function, they’ll know it can’t move forward without a new CEO whom the employees can trust.


Beware the Enemy Within

The other thing I would say about being a CEO is that every day is a fight – and it’s not always the outside world that you’re battling. The biggest enemy should be on the outside. But when every day there is a different fight from within and you are not the solution, you have an issue.

A CEO’s job is to “work on” the business, not “in the” business. It’s OK every now and then to get “in the weeds,” but if you have been slugging it out and you can’t see the forest for the trees, you may have to consider “surrendering” in order for the organization to prosper.

Many selfish leaders will not do that. Their pride and ego will burn things to the ground before they “let go.” If you love the business more than your ego, let go and let others lead the way to victory. It can be one of the greatest things you’ve ever done for them and yourself

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