Creative Leadership

Think Twice Before Succeeding a Legendary Leader

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…

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  1. Great post Phil and very typical of real life in Christian circles.

    So much of this has to do with how much time a leader has spent.  It’s almost impossible – no matter how good the successor is – to replace someone who has been there 20 years or more.  There are too many layers of relational expectation and there is not enough time to overcome perceived obstacles that stem from things like operating style and personality.

    I went to a church with the same leader for 25 years.  His successor only lasted 4.


  2. This isn’t just a problem in ministry. Just went through that on the outside, and had the same issues come up.

  3. Your post brings up the question…  “How many organizations (especially ministries) really SHOULD continue after their founding leader moves on?” 

    I’ve seen groups flounder trying to replace the founder, when probably the better option might have been to close up shop and either spawn or support a fresh new movement that connects with the next generation.

  4. good call, Brett.  Many organizations struggle to maintain a sense of mission, or just lack the original dynamic etc.  Look at Promise Keepers, plenty of others. 

  5. The University of Alabama had a very long adjustment period after Bear Bryant’s death/departure.  Everyone afterward struggled to fill his shoes.

  6. A good reminder as well to the outgoing leaders. We must be ready to let go and move on. We can trust our ministries in God’s hands and those who He chooses  to succeed us

  7. I think one of the big problems is that the group who picks the successor tries to find someone who is strong in the areas the last leader was weak. For example in the church setting the last leader wasn’t a good speaker or wasn’t outreach minded so they find someone good at these things. The problem is in looking at the weaknesses of the last leader they forget the things they loved about them. I think this I why we see a trend where the successor is many times the polar opposite of the leader they replaced.

  8. As I have been taught, if the original body part (founding leader) is moving on for what ever reason, It is just as it is with body transplants: a big risk of rejection. Solution: good spiritual medication and matched DNA! Good comments and outlooks prior to mine.

  9. A successor might need to have different skills from the great leader.  I have heard it said (as a criticism of the successor) that the bureaucrat succeeds the pioneer.  Pioneers might well race out ahead and create a vision for something that can be built or filled in later.  That means the successor might need to be a builder, rather than a pioneer. 

    I think the ‘bureacrat’ criticism is about the successor lacking vision – becoming focused on process rather than progressive direction and meaningful outcomes.  Certainly that is a valid concern and risk of leadership change.  But the vision may need to evolve from where the ‘great leader’ was, as led by God as He guides a movement/mission/ministry.  The great leader’s vision, while appropriate for one time, may have become inappropriate for another time or phase of the ministry.

    I think Zac Pippin’s post is right: “We must be ready to let go and move on. We can trust our ministries in God’s hands and those who He chooses to succeed us”.  There is wisdom in that for the great leader – part of God’s task for you is to recognise: (i) the need for change, ie don’t hang on too long; (ii) that different skills might be needed for the next phase of the ministry/organisation; (iii)  to facilitate transition to His choice of successor; and (iv) to support and nurture God’s ongoing work – remembering it is His work, not yours. 

    The same is true for those being led:  the new leader necessarily will be different and needs support. 

    A failure of the successor may well indicate a failure of the predecessor (ie the “great leader”) to ensure there is ongoing vision, transition and support.

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