Stepping Down is Stepping Up

Think about your last career move. If you’re lucky, you likely changed jobs when you weren’t desperate to do so.
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Like many Americans, I was an avid fan of both The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report when both shows aired back-to-back for about a decade. The news-junkie side of me is partly to blame; but those two men — Stewart and Colbert — were so “infuriatingly good” at their jobs. They were so good at their jobs that it came as a great disappointment when both decided to leave their successful programs at the height of my fandom.

Stephen Colbert was named as David Letterman’s successor in Spring 2014, and the last episode of the Report aired in December of that year. In an interview during his brief hiatus from television, Colbert stated that his decision (which was obviously going to be great for his career) did not have anything to do with a lack of passion for his work on Comedy Central. To paraphrase, Colbert did not want to be seeking a new job when he was unhappy; it was better to leave a position while you were happy and comfortable.

Jon Stewart’s reasoning was similar. When he announced in February 2015 that he would be stepping down as host of The Daily Show at an undetermined time (which turned out to be August of the same year), Stewart said “this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.”

Both Colbert and Stewart thought it would be a disservice to stay in their positions until a point where the show would be unwatchable, or where the audience would get tired of their performances. I doubt they had a Roman dictator in mind when they made their decisions; but upon reflection, these two men indeed mimicked the valuable leadership lesson one ancient Roman statesman provided over a millennium ago.

Roman Republic

Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus, a Roman statesman from the early Republic period, became a symbol of public virtue because of a specific action he took in the 5th century BC.

In the Roman Republic, the position of dictator was an appointment that brought absolute control over the government during times of emergency. It was an ancient form of martial law, and its purpose was to solve problems quickly during the temporary emergency rather than suffering through the slow, deliberate, and necessary law-making process under Senate rule during times of peace.

The Republic was invaded by an outside force, and Cincinnatus was called upon to be dictator. He left his farm, won a quick victory, and turned over his authority so he could retire to his farm again.

In a span of fifteen days, Cincinnatus was a farmer, a dictator, a victorious general, and a farmer, again.

George Washington (Trumbull)


If you are even a novice student of history, the story of Cincinnatus may have a ring of familiarity. The story of President George Washington is very similar. Famously, after his retirement from the British army following the French and Indian War, Washington served as a Virginia delegate in the Second Continental Congress — the same group that later penned and signed the Declaration of Independence. During his time at the Congress, he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, and guided the inexperienced army to a victory during the American War for Independence.

After the war, Washington resigned his commission before being called into service again. After a stint presiding over the Constitutional Convention, Washington was unanimously elected the first president of the United States in 1789. After two terms, the commander-in-chief retired for the last time to his plantation in Northern Virginia. In all likelihood, he would have been elected to a third term, but set a two-term precedent that was followed by all his successors until Franklin Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1940.

The Tether

Ambition is prevalent in our culture, and that is likely why the stories of Washington and Cincinnatus stick out. It is not normal for individuals whose careers demonstrate a high level of ambition to be content with willingly letting go of the influence they worked to obtain. Often, though, we do not follow that example.

Think about your last career move. If you’re lucky, you likely changed jobs when you weren’t desperate to do so. Those who follow the example of Jon Stewart, George Washington, Stephen Colbert, and Lucius Cincinnatus were not forced to leave; rather, they left on their own terms to pursue a better role, or a much-desired retirement.

Have you reached a pinnacle of your career? Or, do you love what you do, but no longer find it challenging? It may be time for you to take a page out of Cincinnatus’s story, and move on to the next chapter before you start hating what you do. Desperation is not a good look during a job search.

Stepping down at the height of your success may be to yours and others’ benefit.

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[…] Washington provides us in the 21st century with many lessons. From his decision to step down from a powerful post for the greater good, to his ability to recover from a tragic leadership blunder, the “pride of Mount […]

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