About once a year Wycliffe Canada’s leadership team thinks about succession planning. We haven’t been doing it for very long, and each time we dust off the charts and consider our bench strength, I feel a bit more confidence in our process and note that we’re closing gaps. This is where we finally look at the evidence regarding what we feel to be true: we are making progress in developing leaders at all levels of the organization. It’s slow progress, but anything systemic is going to take some time.
When doing succession planning, there are a couple of questions you have to consider, and some traps that are too easy to fall into.
- Do we really want to continue in the same structure we’ve had? The temptation with succession charts is to put names in all the boxes: immediate successor, 2-3 years and long-shot/dark horse candidates. But what if the best solution for any of those is to restructure, combine roles, partner or outsource? Does your format allow for that kind of thinking?
- Just because the incumbent exhibits certain skills, experience and characteristics doesn’t mean her successor should. The challenge is to consider 3-5 years into the future and look for successors who can lead that functional area into the future. That’s why Jack Welch says that in the eight years he planned for his succession before stepping down as CEO of GE, most of the names eventually fell off his list, and it was the long-shot and dark-horse candidates who eventually became finalists.
- And finally, we add a lot of our own biases when we consider names. Leaders often think themselves good judges of character, but I’ve seen a lot of leaders write candidates off too quickly. If we were brutally honest, a lot of CEOs would have written off the person their board selects to succeed them.
I could wade further into that subject based on my own reading and faltering attempts at it, but others would have a lot more expertise. If I based this blog post primarily on my own experience and wisdom, the prime benefit for you readers would be along the lines of one of my favourite leadership axioms:
A lot of good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.
For this post, I want to consider what God says about succession planning.
Let’s go back a step and consider some of the mythology around leadership in the first place. In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender says our view of what a leader should be is quite different than God’s. For instance, we want the following:
- “First, a leader must be physically attractive.” Full head of hair, all that. If they can’t be that, then they at least need to be over 6′ tall.
- “We also presume our leaders will be fluent public speakers with a firm command of their audience.” We want panache, charisma and great storytelling.
- “We seek leaders who are well-educated, open, sincere, humble, salt-of-the-earth people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, leaders who never forget their humble beginning or the values and convictions of those they represent.”
- “We expect a leader to make tough decisions… yet we want him to tear up over a sad story and be sentimental on Mother’s Day.
Tell me that’s not true! How many of my readers measure up? This author certainly doesn’t. But we can’t stop there; Allender goes on to say,
What we want is an illusion and we know it. We prefer the illusion because we have a deep need to be buffered from reality. (p27)
The illusion is dangerous because it keeps any of us from qualifying. The pedestal we put leaders on makes leadership unattainable or destroys leaders with unmanageable expectations, sometimes self-imposed. When we apply our own biases to our successors, it gets truly scary. Ultimately, I want Me 2.0: a leader who matches my strengths but doesn’t have my weaknesses. But Me 2.0 doesn’t exist.
Even Moses had the same temptation, and he had the audacity to tell God what He should look for in his successor. Let’s look at Numbers 27:15-23:
Then Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
Look at that list of requirements: a male, a guide, a general, and a shepherd. Where did Moses come up with this list? Is he simply trying to clone himself? Certainly, the wilderness needed a guide and a shepherd. While the historian Josephus tells us Moses had been a general in Egypt, he never takes direct control in any of Israel’s battles. At the same time, Moses is likely looking ahead and considering the next phase for Israel: as it moves into the Promised Land, it will certainly require a military leader as well as a guide and shepherd.
In contrast, what was God’s requirement for leadership?
The Lord replied, “Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him.” (v18)
This doesn’t mean that Joshua didn’t measure up to Moses’ requirements. But God wasn’t looking at the man’s resume; he was looking for evidence of His Spirit. Joshua showed evidence in his past, and it becomes his primary hallmark of leadership after his commissioning:
Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him, doing just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:9)
Let’s apply these ideas to ourselves. Think for a minute about your successes. How many of them really happened because of your amazing ability? Or does your biography read more like Joseph’s? Potiphar… the prison warden… even Pharaoh himself didn’t need to pay attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, “because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” (Genesis 39:2-6; 39:21-23)
Are you self-aware enough to look at yourself with sober judgement and not take credit for God’s handiwork? Have you taken time to reflect and see God’s hand reaching into and through your life to bring about His purposes?
Second, how do we include in our hiring/interviewing practices queries for evidence of the Spirit? If character is bad, if the Spirit is not evident, or the person hasn’t reflected on whether his/her success might have come from God, then to develop their leadership abilities is to enable them. In the future, you will see someone who abuses power, position and people.
In short, without God’s Spirit, all you get is competence. Is that all you want? Is that enough?