Leadership Transition: Leave Your Campsite Better Than You Found It

Leadership Transition: Leave Your Campsite Better Than You Found It

Bill Casey and Wendi Peck

For a PDF of this article, click here

Here in Colorado we are an outdoorsy bunch, and even those of us who prefer a hot toddy to a hot campfire get dragged off to the Great Wilderness now and then. Part of this tradition is a far-sighted ethic that you must always leave your campsite better than you found it. This is a great rule. And despite the occasional knuckle-dragger, most campers follow this pay-it-forward tenet to some degree and the world is better for it.

More executives need to learn this simple morality. Leadership transition is fraught with folks who leave a mess behind. C-level/flag-level transition, especially, can have an aspect of political pragmatism that leaves a stinky mess. We’d estimate that this ethical departure sorts into a hierarchy along these lines:

1. (Heinous) Close off the next leader’s options.
The sin of hubris is at the root of this ethical break. Only outrageous pride would account for executives who use their policy, budget, and personnel decisions to explicitly cut off the strategic options of the person who follows them. Are they really so brilliant that the next guy shouldn’t have a choice?

2. (Slimy) Leave the next leader a mess.
This ethical break is essentially a con job. This is a transitioning leader who feigns good performance by pushing problems into the future. This person saddles the next person with deferred maintenance (literally and metaphorically): unattended staff problems, underinvestment in marketing & R&D, stupid staff cuts, and so on.

3. (Out to lunch) Ignore the issue altogether.
Then there are those who simply aren’t thinking about the next leader. Like near-sighted cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, their wake of chaos is completely unintentional.

4. (Good campers) Give the next leader the ability to steer.
These are the folks who are thinking about their legacy – to their organization, to their employees, to their customers . . . and to the next leader. Kudos to these leaders with the long view.

This last group – the good campers – do the hard things that are also the right things: They fire the people who need firing, they fix the things that need fixing, they create both structure and processes for getting things done, and have provided more than a short-term focus. No one is perfect, and there’s always loads left to be done, but the good campers leave behind a more capable organization than they entered.

What else does a “good camper” do? You tell us.

Published: February 7, 2015


  1. Hi there,

    I just finished reading your article, It was a fantastic piece, full of wisdom and insights on the importance of leaving a positive impact in the wake of a leadership transition.

    Maslow’s Law of Leave Your Campsite Better Than You Found It is a great analogy to emphasize the role that leaders play in shaping their organization’s future. By ensuring that they leave their organization in a better state than they found it, leaders can lay the foundation for long-term success. In the article, you touched upon several key aspects of this principle, such as the importance of building a strong culture, leaving behind a positive legacy, and creating a sustainable future. Your points were well-supported with examples and practical tips, making the article a valuable resource for anyone looking to make a difference in their organization.

    I especially appreciated your discussion of the role that leaders play in fostering a strong organizational culture. Culture is a powerful force that can shape an organization’s direction and impact its success. By leaving behind a positive and supportive culture, leaders can help ensure that their organization continues to thrive long after they have gone.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important topic. I hope that others find the article as valuable and insightful as I did.


  2. Sage words

    A good camper leaves a prioritized list of what needs doing (with just enough background info to provide context). And a heads up about goldbricks, mutineers and bomb throwers, especially if they’re on the B of D.

    CEOh My


  3. Nick Buechler, COL US Army retired

    I served for 30 years and can confirm this is spot on… never had a bad experience doing battle handover with my predecessor or my replacement. Anyone who leaves a mess behind or tries to show up the old guy is not a leader at all… just someone who was lucky enough to be given the opportunity. If they don’t see the error of their approach, eventually it catches up with them.


  4. Bill,

    Seems to me your “good camper” should do their very best to make sure the the next leader is a good leader. To many times people get promoted or selected for the wrong reasons.



  5. I really like the concept of the article and especially calling out that no one is perfect. I really wonder how many bad campers actually know that they are hiring/firing the wrong people or not fixing the right things. Do most outgoing leaders think they left the organization better off than what they started with? Without data it is hard to tell but it could be the classic case where most people think they are above average drivers. I think it is called Illusory Superiority.

    Keep up the thought provoking writing.


  6. Loved it! I’m most proud that 20 years after I left Juniper Gardens it is bigger and more productive than ever. It’s produced over 800 research publications, over 240 graduate degrees, 92 post docs, there are 12 PhDs and 65 staff members.

    The only thing I’d add to your list is: Help recruit and train your successor. I doubt very much JG would be so successful had I not found Charlie Greenwood, groomed him to succeed me obtained academic appointments for him and his wife and (the hardest thing I did) turn the leadership over to him even before I left.



  7. Shelley Stark

    In view of the seeming overwhelming number of “bad campers” in power positions currently, one has to wonder about the paradigm/archetype that our culture promotes. When you strip it down to the core issues, it seems to me that it comes to caring more about what is best, what serves, what helps than you care about your little piece of turf or your bloated ego appetites. These are tenets that could be easily taught to children, and need to be, if we are to turn the tide on the decline of our nation. Greed, domination, power lust, wealth without social responsibility – those are the characteristics of a lousy camper. The Parnership Model vs the Dominator Model. It’s time to reach out a hand, open the wise eye, listen to the other perspective…or yours will never be perceived in the way you hope it will be. Thank you Bill and Wendi!


  8. Pamela Taylor

    Great piece! The only other “good camper” advice I would have is for the outbound leader to act as liaison between the new leader & staff (if possible) to ease tensions & fears in folks who haven’t had the chance to learn to “read” each other’s behavior yet. Helps set a positive tone & avoid petty misunderstandings. Also, people appreciate it, and you get to be the hero. Just a sweet little ancillary benefit I wouldn’t turn down!


  9. Trish Hoffmann

    How timely! As I move on from my current position, I am facing quandaries – how much to tell, how much to share? Most often, a leader isn’t around to hand off to her or his replacement, even when staying within the organization.
    Transitions occur in absentia, with communication, at best, accomplished through documents and examples, which can be difficult to put into context. While I strive to be a good camper, I am sure the next leader in this position will most certainly assess me as at least partially “out to lunch” because there are issues “in flight” that won’t come to fruition or completion before I exit.

    Additionally, I am absolutely convinced that there are things that should not be shared or transitioned. Over time, I have developed what are essentially prejudices – approaches that are unique to me and my experience. Transitioning those would be unproductive to the next leader – at least at the uptake, and could be destructive to people and processes which might flourish under different leadership.

    I loved the categories. While I traverse this rickity bridge, I will keep the analogy in front of me, and bottom line, try to take my trash out with me.


  10. Les Makepeace

    There’s a good bit in “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” about this too. Can’t remember the quote exactly, but it gets to the idea that the new leader isn’t as good, he can’t be because he’s new, but you’ve got to support the transition because he’s the new leader. I think that book calls them “chieftains”.


  11. Andrea Moore

    I’m also a firm believer in the “good camper” philosophy. It strikes me that this type of leader embraces a transition plan, so the next one who follows can step right in with little difficulty. I also think that a lessons learned debriefing is highly valuable so that people can receive feedback and know what the right way is for the next project. I guess that would be equivalent to grooming the next leader to take over the good camper methodology.


  12. Unfortunately, this bad behavior is the natural consequence of leader-follower.

    The single most effective mechanism for changing this isn’t speeches, it’s giving everyone a performance evaluation a year after they leave.

    That would motivate an investment in the people and processes of the organization as opposed to developing a personality-based structure.

    The answer is leader-leader.
    More at http://blog.practicuminc.com/


  13. CAPT Kathy Helms

    Great article and great reminder of our moral obligation to the organization, not just to individuals in the organization. In fact, one of the Service and Navy mottos is “Mission First, People Always.” I try to explain to our youngest members that we are willing to put people at risk to achieve the mission, but we know we cannot do so w/out our people. It is our moral obligation to put the Service first, but do our very best to ensure our folks are prepared for the tasks they will face, and able to overcome adversity and succeed in any environment they find themselves.

    I think there’s a part two to your article on “making the hard calls” the ensure success beyond your tenure. I see this as the number one challenge in the military and civil service — senior and middle managers who struggle with the difficult, honest conversation about less than optimal performance. I can think of no more influential aspect to generating required execution and culture changes than making it real in performance evaluations and assessments. The SID made the most progress in this area — the highest score he gave to his immediate staff was 3.3, and overall we were about 3.5. We had several people below 3.0, and we only had two folks above 4.6 (on 5.0 scale). Over time, we will probably have a more at the distant ends (high and low), but it was a better reflection of where we are and tells me people are getting more serious about the hard discussions. Additionally, we had fewer promotion packages submitted deeper up the chain — same at the lower end — meaning intermediate supervisors had the hard conversation with their employees rather than pushing the hard discussion up the chain on readiness for promotion. At the end of the day, military and government leaders rarely get to pick their team, but they can often decide what position a member gets to play and promotions to positions of increased responsibility.


  14. RADM J. Frank Caldwell

    I think Good campers also prepare the campsite for the transition including making sure the incoming guy knows all the animals, park rangers, etc. It’s not just doing your job and leaving a legacy; it’s also ensure the new leader gets a running start.


  15. What else does a “good camper” do? As Smokey the Bear has taught us since we were little, “only you can prevent a forest fire”….put out the fire before you leave! If your replacement needs to start a fire, hopefully that person has the skills to do so (otherwise they shouldn’t have been promoted!)


  16. Laurie Nusbaum

    Where’s the “Like” button? Or rather, “Like this a whole lot.”

    I wonder if another category is “Overwhelmed.” This is the camper that picks up almost everything but maybe in haste, leaves a bag of …… something (unintentionally or at with at least some conscience).


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