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No leader leads forever. All leaders leave. It’s our humanity writ large.

We seize another opportunity, age, grow tired, get bored, get fired, take time out to “spend time with the family,” retire, get sick or die. But one way or another, no matter what we are leading, we eventually leave. For the President of the United States, it’s four years or eight years but no more.

So changing leaders is not the problem. It happens. But changing leaders badly can debilitate or destroy an organization. Poor leadership transition can disillusion people within and without, the organization’s personnel and public.

In my estimation this happened at the University of Michigan when men’s football coach Lloyd Carr retired and Rich Rodriquez was named his successor. Rodriquez got off a horrible start and things went downhill from there—his buy-out penalty at West Virginia University wasn’t honored and WVU had to sue to get what was rightfully owed, statements were made on all sides that later proved suspect, and so it went. Add a poor win-loss record and Rodriquez was fired three years later. The entire story is a case study for what not to do in leadership transition.

One way to attempt to avoid (no guarantees) a major hiccup in leadership transition is to plan the transition. Plan leadership succession, not necessarily anointing an heir apparent, but plan the process by which the next leader will be identified.

The responsibility for planned leadership succession resides with current leadership—the Board and the chief officers of the organization. Herein lies a sometimes problem. For a variety of reasons and motives current leaders may not want to plan transition.

Current leaders are sometimes threatened by the prospects of developing a leadership succession plan. They confuse the process with their own security and sense of longevity. Sometimes leaders push planning into the future because they’d rather deal with immediate issues; classic procrastination.

Boards make a terrible mistake when they dilly-dally with leadership succession in the warped view that doing so is a statement of confidence in the current leader. Or, directors are so enamored by the current leader they beg him/her to stay forever. But forever doesn’t happen this side of the afterlife. Consequently, something inevitably happens and suddenly the organization is facing leadership transition with no idea of how to pull it off.

Stockholders in for-profit enterprises and constituents or donors supporting nonprofit organizations have a stake in who’s leading and who will be leading. For them, leadership succession planning is good stewardship that attempts to perpetuate the wellbeing of the organization. Without this planning, the organization can get caught shooting craps with its own future. Shrewd stakeholders who see this sometimes quietly opt out when they think the risk is getting too high.

The old biblical monarchies had a kind of built-in leadership transition process. Whenever Father stepped aside, Son stepped in. It was simple. Contemporary organizations sometimes operate on that principle, but usually they face a more complex task and thus need more planning.

Boards that develop a leadership contingency and succession plan, a kind of “Leader’s Will,” greatly increase the chances of a smooth and successful leadership transition.

Leadership transition works best when leaders know when to leave. An organization’s potential for long-term viability is increased when it is affirmed that no one is irreplaceable. Lame duck leaders or “Emperors who have no clothes” are deadly to an organization’s image, effectiveness, and health. In non-profit or profit settings, Boards must take responsibility. Weak Boards produce weak organizations and nowhere is this more quickly evident than in instances of current leaders being permitted to stay too long.

Formal search processes for new leaders are virtually inevitable and almost always desirable. Organizations do not always enjoy the comfort of an in-house heir apparent, and even if they do, it’s better for both the presumed heir and the organization for him/her to win or earn the new position, not be granted it outright. A search helps validate the choice. Besides, a search may make it evident that a presumptive heir is not so logical or capable after all.

One of the best ways to prepare an organization for leadership transition is to develop potential leaders who can later be considered in the search. “Up and comers” should be targeted for mentoring, role modeling, networking, and special assignment opportunities. Failure to develop young staff can drive away a whole generation of prospective leaders, crippling the organization for years to come. Organizations are strengthened by plans that proactively identify and support leadership talent from all walks of life.

Leadership succession planning becomes logically more important for organizations with long-term and older leaders. It’s just good business. More than that, it instills confidence in all stakeholders that the organization is in good hands today and will be, to the best of our abilities, in good hands tomorrow too.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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