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Difficulty of Separation

In a relationship between dynamic leaders and committed followers who share a common purpose, withdrawing support from a leader is a wrenching act. It is closer to the experience of divorce than it is to leaving one job for another. As in a divorce, it can take months to begin recovering from the experience and years to fully recover.

The leader won the loyalty of followers because of a shared commitment to a common purpose and of the many attractive attributes the leader

brought to the pursuit of that purpose. Whether or not these attributes have been obscured by less attractive ones, the prospect of leaving can stir up conflicted feelings in the follower.

There are many scenarios in which separation is difficult. If a leader and organization are failing, the most painful loss may be that of our dreams, of the expectations we had for the organization, its cause, and our own future. We may need to mourn these losses in order to fully separate.

Fearing the loss of reflected power from the leader also causes reluctance to separate. We come to believe that our ability to live a meaningful life and maintain a sense of control over our destiny are dependent on the leader’s fortune. We may need to rediscover our internal compass and our own power. Though some people will stop returning our phone calls and cease being supportive when we lose our reflected power, we’ll soon discover the genuine relationships in our lives.

Sometimes we become overly specialized, having served a particular organization and leader for many years. We wonder how we will survive; who would want us if we leave? Sometimes we just lose the habit of how to live outside the organization. Followers working in intense environments that demand round-the-clock activity, such as senior political offices, advocacy groups, or start-up companies in highly competitive industries, are particularly prone to sacrificing time with their families and communities. They need to regain familiarity with living a balanced life.

Separation difficulty is ultimately a crisis of identity. We are no longer sure of who we are, independent of the organization. The organization forms an important part of our identity in an age when other institutions that traditionally have given people a sense of belonging have weakened. This is seen in its extreme form in cults, whose members cease belonging to any other unit in society and derive their identity nearly completely from cult membership. But the phenomenon is a widespread occurrence in less pathological forms: witness recent retirees or people whose jobs have been eliminated. Drawing our identity from involvement in an organization raises the emotional stakes of leaving.

Followers struggling with separation might ask themselves these questions:

Who am I on my own?

What do I believe?

What do I want?

Is the organization’s purpose still my purpose?

Are there other ways to pursue this purpose?

What do I really need to survive?

What are my skills?

What else could I do with these skills?

What gives me satisfaction?

What would I be willing to take risks for?

Who are my real friends?

What do I owe the leader and the organization?

What do they owe me?

How can we discharge these obligations to each other?

Our identity is never really lost, just obscured. We are wise to maintain relationships and interests outside the organization, for their own sake as well as for their importance in retaining our independent identity. This will make leaving the leader and organization considerably easier when the time comes to do so.