This post, first published several years ago has been updated....
I’ve witnessed many leadership transitions and led several during my career. These experiences led me to develop a theology of ending well, studying bible story accounts of when leadership succession worked and when it didn’t. I wanted to know if divine guidance was present in any of these stories.
- I learned that every situation is uniquely constructed and good leaders are helped to pay attention to the context, not just their methods. Here are some other insights: Succession works best during an economic upswing. Leaving when trend arrows point down looks like failure and creates a desire to clean house. Similarly, succeeding to the leader’s role is more easily done in the upswing. Ascending when trend arrows point down looks like incompetence and creates a rebellious ferment (Study the successions of David to Solomon and then Solomon to Reheboam to see the contrast).
- Succession works best when there are clean boundaries in place. The outgoing leader must hold a well-defined line between managing ongoing affairs without obstructing changes the new leader may wish to bring. Failure to keep this clear leads to meddling and handicapping one’s successor. It is better to be seen as detaching from the role too early than holding the reins too long. Similarly, succeeding to the leadership position means the successor must hold a well-defined line between getting resources in place without showing disrespect to the leader they succeed. Better to be seen as slow in getting started than as a usurper. Many people study the presidential transitions of the United States as a good example of managing succession (One might also study Queen Athaliah as an example of someone who destroyed rather than lose access to power. The succession of Moses to Joshua, by contrast, is one of the best case studies in human history).
- It DOES matter what people say about you when you are gone. This is not an obsession about one’s image, but a realization: If succession is led well and leaves fertile ground for the successor, there will be new opportunity for the outgoing leader. If succession has been poorly managed, however, each subsequent interaction with one’s former colleagues will be tinged with stress and regret. Whichever reputation one has forged during the succession process will become an oft-told tale, perhaps even an epitaph (Consider the reputations of King Saul and King David as examples of this contrast).
I am writing these insights down because I've walked through numerous transitions and successions.
When I do my part well, a successor has every opportunity to thrive and to lead into new efforts that invite human flourishing. If not, then I handicap the experience of a successor.
There is no room for mediocrity. It is among the highest of leadership arts to master effective leadership succession, then to do it repeatedly in a variety of contexts.