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Who’s next—The culture of leader succession in uncertain times

It’s a story as old as humanity itself: skies darken, scary things happen and people seek leaders to tell them what to do. Once it was hailstorms and predators, today it’s pandemic and failing markets. Instead of huddling around campfires, today people gaze into the scant blue light of LCD screens, wondering who will succeed in the elections of Germany and Japan, whether there will be a succession in Moscow, Beijing and Manila, whether their firm’s success has granted Bezos, Musk and Ma unlimited powers and if they do not lead us into the future, who will.

People used to see disasters as signals for the fall of dynasties for a reason. Then as today, changing environments call for new insights and methods. As leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith put it: “What got you here won’t get you there”. The modern, considerably smoother equivalent of dynastic revolutions are term limits in politics and performance-based executive mandates at companies. In changing times, such mechanisms pressure leaders to either find new solutions fast or give way to someone who will. Resistance by incumbents is expected and tackled by the collective decision of voters or shareholders.

Leadership succession in uncertain times

But transitions are scary, which provides just as many reasons to keep leaders in place. Replacement adds uncertainty, and there is no guarantee that the next leader will do a better job. People need frequent reminders to think ‘out of the box’ because inside feels safer. Changes and risks outside are great excuses to stay protected just a bit longer, and going somewhere is harder than staying. Smart leaders know how to take credit and provide an excuse to stay in power. “If you’re still alive and well in there, I must have done something right. Right? Think twice before you roll the leadership dice.”

Fear is a stronger survival instinct than courage, so if given otherwise equal choices, majorities avoid replacing leaders in uncertain times. Of course, choices are seldom equal: most communities including countries and firms either lean towards default change or stability. Some nations spent most of their history under undisputed rulers, others have matured through upheavals. Some firms nurture the legacy of long-gone founder figures, others have strategized to success through pragmatic mergers, acquisitions and transformations.

Crisis can push communities near or across the dividing line: remember how close last year’s US elections came to a non-succession? If you lead anything or ever hope to (a company, a department, an NGO or a nation), learn to spot two tricks of leadership consolidation. Chieftains, warlords, presidents, CEOs and executives for millennia have used them to first convince themselves and their constituencies that it was either them or complete chaos, and then to keep control indefinitely. Ultimately, research shows that both are ways to squander long-term viability for a temporary illusion of safety and stability.

Trick Number One: Presidents of everything

The easiest way to stay in power is a gradual accumulation of multiple titles and functions. Political examples are more fun but since I write on corporate leadership, I advise you watch the Netflix documentary How to Become a Tyrant and move on to corporate personality cults where the paramount leader is either thought to be right about everything (Amazon, Tesla) or we are all screwed (Nissan, Theranos). Early warning signs of this phenomenon include leaders assuming multiple titles, which today’s labyrinthine ‘matrix’ organisations make especially easy, then either delegating the work or not delivering at all.

Trick Number Two: The Russian revolving door

The name is inspired by how Vladimir Putin outsmarts term limits by swapping the titles of Premier and President, but corporate leaders learn fast and often exit an office with one position and then re-enter with another. The new title can be higher than the previous one (Board Member, for instance), a sideways move like heading the firm’s most influential project, business unit or geographic market. It can be an honorary title or none at all: Alibaba founder Jack Ma resigned as Chairman amidst great fanfare in 2019, but few can name his successor and news on Beijing’s recent tech-clampdown confirm that he is still in charge.

Ancient cultures considered their priest-leaders ‘pillars’ that kept the sky from tumbling onto their heads. Indeed, the departure of some leaders pulls the building down, exactly because they failed to nominate and nurture people to smoothly transition their mandates to the next generation. It will happen again. Power is addictive: some future presidents, CEOs and directors will cling to it until it’s too late to depart gracefully. But your leadership legacy at a corporation, department, activist organisation, sports club or anything else can outlive crises if you follow a few tips recommended by top experts.

ONE: Look for successors as soon as you become a leader.

Better still, empower the people who helped you into your leadership position: few promotions are accomplished alone. Avoid the common mistake of placing all your eggs into one prospective successor’s basket. Smart and ambitious people have options, and they may move on or take another important role before you can appoint them. If you run out of candidates, that’s usually a sign that you keep authority too close to your chest and must start sharing information and opportunity a bit more generously.

TWO: Nurture a diversity of leadership styles.

Too many leaders hope to produce and promote their clones. In fact, expecting candidates to imitate your style and feel justified when they fail kills motivation and undermines succession. If you are as good as you think, your organisation will expand and your successors will face diversifying requirements across different places, cultures and communities. ‘What got your team here won’t get them there.’ The secret is to set clear and objective goals, let people accomplish them their own way and then give them sharp and objective evaluation: a combination of hard and soft leadership methods over time.

THREE: Be honest about goals and progress.

Many executives I coach have mentally picked successors already (sometimes multiple ones), but prefer not to inform them. There are multiple reasons for the secrecy. For some, it feels safer to observe unnoticed. (Remember the box?) Others feel more in control when they delegate tasks without revealing the big picture. Still others feel insecure if some of their people aspire to replace them. But when I ask them, most would want to know if they were earmarked for a higher position. They would also like to know the criteria of their promotion, and get regular updates on how well they are doing so far.

Deep down inside we all know that ultimately, bosses don’t decide. People promote themselves, especially when crises call for decisive action. Instead of being remembered as another obstacle ultimately overcome, smart leaders become part of their replacement's success story.

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