Successful Succession Requires More Than Great Leaders

“Why don’t you think the leadership transition worked at ___________ ?” It is a common question I am asked by ministry and marketplace leaders, and there have been dozens of churches and organizations in the blank. Typically, the person asking is sincerely perplexed why the transition of leadership or the planned succession has not worked because both leaders involved, both the predecessor and the successor, are well-respected for being great leaders. “It should have worked, right? Like, why did this not work as planned?”

Successful leadership transitions require more than great leaders. When it comes to succession, having great leaders involved is table stakes; it just gets you to the table and in the game. For there to be actual success in succession, these six characteristics are also present. There could be more than these but there are certainly not less, at least based on conversations and observations I have had over the last six years.

Humility in the predecessor

It takes humility for an effective leader to step aside, for the leader to recognize that the mission is bigger than one person. It takes greater doses of humility for the predecessor to sincerely want the ministry or organization to thrive in new ways.

Humility in the successor

It takes humility for a successor to admit that amazing work took place before his/her leadership. It takes greater doses of humility for the successor to continually celebrate the past, to connect new vision to previous values, and to publicly acknowledge the past as the enabler of the future.

A healthy sense of identity apart from the role in the predecessor

If the predecessor finds worth and identity in the previous role, the predecessor will need to subtly seek praise to stroke the ego—often by casting doubt on the current season or inviting constant reflection on the glory days. A predecessor who is healthy finds worth in Christ and what Christ has done and is able to celebrate successes of the successor.

A new vision for the next season in the predecessor

A predecessor needs a new vision for the next season of leadership in his or her life, a vision the predecessor is emotionally excited about and economically equipped to execute. Some leaders are emotionally excited about a new season but don’t have the economic means to step aside. Other leaders have the economic means but lack emotional excitement about something new. It is on others in the organization (board members, key staff, etc.) to enable predecessors to be able to step aside at the right time. It is on the leader to receive from God excitement for a new season of serving God and others in a new way.

A love for the church/organization “as she is” in the successor

In a “turnaround” situation, a new leader can come and announce sweeping change and a new direction. In a planned succession, the leader should love the church or organization “as she is,” and be committed to serving her and stewarding new opportunities well. Of course, there will be changes made, but they must come from a posture of loving what you received.

A commitment to honor and respect one another

There will be a plethora of people who would love to sit back with a bag of popcorn and watch the predecessor and successor fight. There have always been people who will say “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Peter.” It takes commitment to Christ to and to each other to say “Who am I? God is the One who causes the growth.” It takes a consistent commitment to honor each other to give people a beautiful picture of how God’s people can dwell together in unity.