One of the most difficult challenges any leader can face is to take the job as the successor to a great leader. Legendary leaders are often founders, or have guided the organization through great growth and/or difficult times, and in doing that, leaves a mark. People remember great leaders, and to step into their shadow is to risk a great deal. Strategic advisor James Lukaszewski says that once a successor is announced, if the transition doesn’t happen quickly, it will almost always fail. Why?
Because we’re all human, and if you don’t move the founder or leader out of the way, he’ll spend his time torpedoing the incoming successor. He doesn’t overtly mean to do it, but by having in effect two leaders, the senior will he’ll meddle, he’ll criticize, he’ll use his friendships on the board to block new ideas he doesn’t agree with. It happens in business (see Jack Welch’s criticism of Jeffrey Immelt at GE), it happens in non-profits, and it happens in churches. It even happens with fathers and sons (see Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral – and many others).
In my experience across the business and non-profit spectrum, the first successor is often just a target. Sadly, history shows that he takes the hits long enough for a second successor to eventually be found who can really succeed. By the time the second successor arrives, either the legendary leader is retired, given up his influence, or the board has neutralized his influence for the survival of the organization.
The tragedy in all of this is that the first successor is often a brilliant leader, and the perfect person for the job. But he never gets off on the right foot, and never has a chance to spread his wings.In my experience he often goes on to accomplish great things at other organizations.
There’s no question that sometimes, a successor is the wrong choice and should be ousted. And it also doesn’t mean these legendary leaders are jerks or power hungry. But as I mentioned, we’re all human. Giving up control – particularly of something you created – is very difficult, and the idea of someone else leading a different way is hard to take.
Be very careful when you’re offered the job to succeed a legendary leader. Don’t forget your flak jacket…