Our charismatic and talented CEO, whom we all thought would lead us well into our uncertain future, just announced he's resigning to work for the competition. How do we cope?
When a beloved CEO leaves precipitously, he bursts the shared illusion that you'll have him forever. We tend to idealize good leaders, blinding us to the fact that they're in it not only for us but for themselves, too. When he quits to take a bigger job, your initial (and understandable) shock gives way to a mix of betrayal, anger, sadness, loss, uncertainty, and disorientation. You might be surprised, though, by how quickly these feelings pass.
Think of this as a chance to take a hard look at your organization, including your own role in it. Ask yourself what problems and opportunities may have been concealed by your idealization of the CEO.
Undoubtedly, there will be speculation about why he left, which can take the form of collective self-doubt. Was it solely to further his own career, or did he know something you didn't? Presumably there will be an interim boss in place while the company searches for a new one. Both the temporary CEO and the successor should pay close attention to the aftereffects, traumatic or not, of the former boss's exit. That said, no one, not even the top dog, is indispensable, and most organizations are more resilient than their employees think. Some do even better under new leadership.
The bottom line? Pay attention to your feelings and don't sweep them under the rug. Make sure you don't turn your anger at the old CEO against others in the company. In the end, you'll come to remember that being a CEO is just a job. He was your boss, not your daddy.
Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs on people and culture issues. Send him questions about the psychology of business (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.