Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (Photo by Anwar Hussein/WireImage)
Forget Brexit. It’s Megxit that’s generating international headlines from the U.K. Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s announcement on Instagram that the couple will “step back as ‘senior’ members of the royal family and work to become financially independent” has generated a fierce debate. Is this a “sad move,” as royal historian Hugo Vickers told the BBC? Or is it “the most meaningful act of royal leadership I’m ever likely to see,” as Afua Hirsch posits in her New York Times Op-Ed, “Black Britons Know Why Meghan Markle Wants Out”?
I’ll explain why it can be right and good for a leader to step back from their responsibilities. This arises when the leader:
- Develops values different from those of their institution
- Becomes seriously ill
- Knows they are likely to be removed from their leadership position anyway
Let’s look at each category in turn.
Stepping Back When Your Values Diverge From Your Institution’s
Pomp and circumstance
LightRocket via Getty Images
The royal family is the quintessential conservative institution. Its deep roots in the past are what so many people love about it. “[A] lot of people want to hold onto something that they feel is standard and has a trajectory where they know what is going to happen,” said Nick Ede, PR expert and Royal commentator, last year on the Yahoo UK podcast Britain is a Nation of….
“So what they do is they align themselves with something that’s quite familiar to them and the monarchy to them is a familiar thing that has stayed the same through so many things, from world wars through to disaster,” Ede continued. “They’re always there.”
But what should members of the royal family do when they realize that their moral values and beliefs are at odds with those of this centuries-old institution? They can choose to remain where they are and put up with with their discomfort. Or they can announce, as Prince Harry and Meghan have done, that they will step back and pursue projects based on their values and beliefs.
The press is rife with explanations about what might have prompted the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to make this announcement, but let’s consider what the royal couple have said themselves:
[W]e have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen…. We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America….
They added that “This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity….”
It comes down to a simple calculus. If you believe that your highest obligation is to the institution where you currently have a leadership role, the right thing to do is to stay put. If, however, you believe that is important to honor your institution but that your strongest duty is being true to your own moral compass, it would be wrong to stay where you are.
The Rolling Stones without Bill Wyman (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Something worth factoring into your decision making is how your decision will affect your relationships with the people you care about.
Bill Wyman, the bassist in the classic lineup of the Rolling Stones, chose to leave the band in 1992 after playing with them for 30 years. His bandmates appeared to have harbored a grudge against him, because during their 50th-anniversary tour in 2012, they allowed Wyman to play only two songs, which he said was “very disappointing.”
“They wouldn’t let me do any more,” he told the BBC in 2013. “I think maybe they were punishing me for leaving.”
No one could reasonably begrudge Wyman for wanting to pursue other interests after serving so long in one band. Still, it was foreseeable that his bandmates might not welcome him back with open arms.
If you choose to do what Bill Wyman did, be prepared to face the music.
Stepping Back When You’re Ill
Steve Jobs (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, file)
A major ethical challenge in corporate leadership is knowing when to anoint a successor and then move on. Facing our mortality isn’t easy, but it’s still an essential component of good leadership. The alternative is to dwell in the fantasy world of the Genesis song, “Living Forever.” “Always one more tomorrow,” Phil Collins sings. “I’ll live forever.”
Consider, for example, what happened when Apple CEO Steve Jobs became ill. In January 2009, after he attributed his recent weight loss to a “hormone imbalance,” Apple’s stock took a nosedive. Business journalist Joe Nocera suggested then that this downward turn occurred because “investors simply don’t believe Mr. Jobs.”
The time has come for Apple’s board to take control of this subject from Mr. Jobs and do the right thing by the company’s investors. Tell us, once and for all, what is going on with Mr. Jobs’s health.
On August 24, 2011, Jobs wrote to the board, “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.” He died six weeks later.
Elsewhere, I’ve discussed how truthful leaders in Jobs’s situation should be with stakeholders. The question here is whether Jobs and others with chronic, debilitating illnesses ought to step aside. How can a good society honor two crucial values: avoiding discriminating against people who are sick and respecting the right to privacy?
At the heart of this question is the ultimate challenge in leadership: how to face one’s mortality. It is understandable to want to deny reality. It is courageous to do everything possible to fight a seriousness illness. But courage also requires us to apply what Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics calls “phronesis” or practical wisdom.
The best analysis of practical wisdom I know of occurs in the chorus of “The Gambler,” immortalized by Kenny Rogers and written by Don Schlitz: “You got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / Know when to run.”
There’s no simple formula for knowing when an illness will prevent you from leading effectively. But one thing is for certain: denying reality helps no one.
Even the narrator of “Living Forever” comes to his senses by the end of the song. The last line is a question: “Do you really want to live forever?”
Stepping Back When You Know You’re Going To Be Removed From Power Anyway
8th August 1974: View of the cover of Photo by Blank Archives/Getty Images
President Richard M. Nixon believed he could withstand the fall-out from the Watergate scandal. In 1972, five men burglarized the offices of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Office Complex in D.C. Over a two year period, investigations by the press, the Justice Department, and the U.S. House of Representatives’s Judiciary Committee uncovered evidence that the Nixon administration was behind the break-in and then attempted to cover it up.
The investigation eventually led to the formation of a special committee in the U.S. Senate, which held public hearings and called witnesses from the administration. President Nixon resisted the committee’s inquiries, which introduced “stonewalling” into the popular lexicon.
Eventually the House began impeachment proceedings. Nixon continued to deny any knowledge of or involvement in the break-in or cover-up, but the writing was on the wall. As Edward T. O’Donnell, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at The College of the Holy Cross, told me, “The Republican leadership marched up to the White House from the Capitol told the president, “We’re going to remove you from office, so you should resign.”
That’s when the president “decided that it wouldn’t be worth fighting. It was better to cut his losses and go.” On August 8, 1974, he became the first U.S. president to resign from office.
But you don’t have to be faced with being convicted of federal crimes to see stepping back as the best of several undesirable alternatives. David Ortiz, “arguably the greatest designated hitter in baseball history and inarguably one of the most popular players in recent memory,” according to CBS Sports writer Mike Axisa, retired from the Boston Red Sox at the height of his powers. O’Donnell told me that although Ortiz could have continued to play, he realized it would be increasingly difficult to maintain his level of excellence.
There wasn’t an imminent threat to Ortiz’s career, but he didn’t want to wait until there would be. He also wanted to spend more time with his family, so he stepped back.
How will you decide?
It’s time to remove the stigma from stepping back and realize that in at least three circumstances, it may not only be acceptable to move away from your leadership role. It can be the right and good thing to do.